The old refrain about “making beautiful music together” definitely fits the touring production which stopped by Merrill Auditorium for a couple of performances under the aegis of Portland Ovations.

Based on the highly regarded 2007 movie of the same name, the award-winning musical “Once” concerns an Irish busker who meets a young Czech immigrant on the streets of contemporary Dublin. A tentative and touching romance ensues as the pair, with the help of friends and family, collaborate on some memorable pop/folk songs, originally penned by Glen Hansard with Marketa Irglova, who also star in the movie.

Sam Cieri and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy took the lead roles as the two musically gifted young people with strings still tied to past romances. Their wistful sharing of regrets fuels the songs they make together. And that stirring music filled the Merrill Wednesday evening. Such songs as “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” rose from the stage to the furthest reaches of the auditorium. Individually, Cieri also added feeling to “Gold” while Lesser-Roy, at the piano, took the crowd up “The Hill.”

An unusual staging added to the visual appeal of this show. Using only lighting changes and some rearrangement of furniture, the fixed set became alternately a street scene, a vacuum-cleaner shop, a music store, an apartment, an office, a music studio, a beach and a pub. Audience members were invited onstage to mingle with the cast and check-out the set before the performance and at intermission.

With the exception of one child actor, all cast members sang, danced and played one or more instruments, including guitar, banjo, concertina, violin, cello, drums and piano. Some all-too-brief dance sequences established a contemporary feel amid the more expected Emerald Isle references. Casual costuming also served to bring the show’s street-level social context home.

Dramatic scenes requiring a sense of intimacy were a bit of a challenge for this production, which laid on the Irish brogue a bit too thick in places. But a general sense of what was happening in the relatively simple story came through.

Comedic sequences fared better, with Lesser-Roy assertively whipping her sad sack partner into shape. John Hays and Lauren J. Thomas also got to go for laughs as a bonehead shop owner and a vampy violinist. Jenn Chandler scored as an ambitious bank manager.

Most of all, it was the power and beauty of the big numbers, meant “for anyone who has lost their love,” that kept more than a few in the crowd humming on their way out after Wednesday night’s performance.

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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