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Falling slowly

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A production of the Dublin-based musical "Once" always begins well before the house lights go down. As theatregoers file to their seats with pints of Guinness or whisky cocktails, there's a lively band on stage jamming out classic Irish folk songs. The fourth wall is immediately broken as they invite clapping and singing along; the band even delivers the pre-show announcements usually heard over the speakers. Geva Theatre Center's "Once," a co-production with Syracuse Stage, is no exception.

"Once" originated as an independent film by John Carney, a bandmate of musician Glen Hansard in the Irish folk group The Frames. At Carney's request, Hansard and his friend Markéta Irglová, who had been performing together as The Swell Season, penned the musical's soundtrack and played the leading roles. After failed submission to many film festivals, "Once" was discovered by Sundance Film Festival and catapulted to theatrical distribution in 2007, winning the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song, "Falling Slowly."

The film, which became an indie hit, was adapted for the stage and premiered on Broadway in 2012, earning 12 Tony Award nominations and winning eight, including Best Musical. It also won Best Book of a Musical, awarded to Irish playwright Enda Walsh (perhaps better known for his darker pieces and collaborations with actor Cillian Murphy like "Ballyturk" and "Grief is the Thing with Feathers").

The plot focuses on a chance meeting between an Irish singer-songwriter, simply referred to as Guy, and a Czech immigrant, Girl, who's also a gifted musician. The two meet at turbulent times in both their lives, but form a swift bond over music and record a demo within a week. The results of their work leave them with choices both professional and personal.

Because the musical is so song-focused -- it features 17 songs over two acts -- there's more singing than dialogue, but no traditional pit orchestra. Each ensemble member plays an instrument (or three) on stage as well as acting in a scripted role. The supporting cast of Geva's "Once" is spectacular, delivering expert musical performances led by musical director Don Kot, convincing (oft-humorous) dimensional characters, and exuding a contagious energy throughout the two-and-half hour run (including a 15-minute intermission). The company's vim and vigor makes up for the occasional lapse in Irish dialect and a few too-quiet instrumental sound levels. However, the need for musicians first in casting is precisely where shows like "Once" can, and sometimes do, suffer.

Samantha Sayah, who plays Girl (and piano during musical numbers), is very compelling in the role of a Czech immigrant who is also a young mother. Sayah shows a wide emotional range throughout the show as her character battles between head and heart. Sayah's Czech accent is consistent from dialogue to song, aiding in Girl's trademark bluntness and dry humor. Sayah has a beautiful, lilting voice as well, and executes perfect harmonies in many of the numbers.

Opposite Sayah is Elliot Greer, who plays the heartbroken singer-songwriter Guy. But rather than tortured artist, Greer portrays a sort of lazy freeloader. While that makes sense initially, the character hardly develops through the narrative. Greer also leads the lion's share of the songs in the show, but where Hansard has written the music to be raw and cracking and passionate, Greer delivers an overkill of polished notes and runs in an almost country Elvis twang that steals the torture and depth from the numbers.

It's not that Greer can't do it -- there are moments where his unrestrained voice breaks through -- but he's physically and vocally holding back, controlling power that he could otherwise unleash on the audience during numbers like "When Your Mind's Made Up," "The Hill," and "Say It to Me Now." Part of this responsibility falls to artistic director Mark Cuddy to coax or guide, but the show would undoubtedly rise to swelling heights if Greer opened up.

Traditionally, the minimalist set of "Once" is built as an interactive pub for show attendees; during intermission they are invited on stage to order a pint with the band. For reasons unclear, Geva chose not to do that (a disappointment for those who have seen the show before, as it does create an additional magic). Tim Mackabee's versatile set is still minimalist, with a static backdrop of shop storefronts in different European languages to reflect the immigrant-friendly streets of Dublin, and rotating set pieces to show scenes in Guy's Hoover shop, a music store, the recording studio, and more. Interpretive choreography by Whitney G-Bowley is more distracting than inspiring (perhaps because it's not a cast filled with dancers), the often out-of-sync or clunky movement detracting from weighty numbers like "If You Want Me."

"Once" is a captivating musical, filled with story and heartache, ghosts and grief. It has every opportunity to be Dublin embodied on stage -- but the music must be honored the way it was written, or the production feels hollow.

NOTE: Geva representatives have stated that the concept of the show's bar setting is the intellectual property of the original creative team and that Geva was contractually prohibited from setting the entire show in a bar and welcoming the audience onstage.

Leah Stacy is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to becca@rochester-citynews.com.