Sunday, February 18, 2018


This was kind of a weird weekend. I was watching the weather reports warily, but because they made it sound like the rain wouldn't turn to snow until sometime during the overnight on Saturday, my daughter and I headed to Stony Brook for an 8:30 PM showing of the film The Shape of Water. Naturally, the rain turned to snow before we were even halfway to the movie theater. I'm not comfortable with my car's performance in the snow and ice, so we briefly discussed just turning around and going home. But we waited a long time to see the film, and I still thought the weather might warm up again and melt any snow that formed, so we continued on.

Because this is a music blog, I won't talk too much about the film (although it does have a really good musical score). Suffice it to say that I thought the movie was excellent -- I liked it way more than I thought I would. What I didn't like was that as soon as we walked out of the auditorium, I could see through the theater's back door that the snow had continued, and there was already a good couple of inches on the ground.

The drive home was kind of iffy -- I knew the snow was supposed to be worse on the North Shore than the South, so I kept hoping that as we drove south on Nicolls Road, we'd outrun it. We did eventually, but not until we got all the way to Sunrise Highway. Anyway, we made it home in one piece, but it gave me some concerns about Sunday.

You see, I'd bought tickets for the Feb 18 Sunday matinee performance of Once at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport a few weeks ago. And as the snow was scheduled to continue for much of the overnight, I didn't know what to expect, especially since Northport is all the way the hell back north.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. There was no snow on the ground at all near my house on Sunday morning. And after several hours of sun and warm weather, there wasn't any snow to speak of in Northport either.

This was my first visit to the Engeman Theater. I can sum up the negatives about the theater in just two points: 1. The tickets are a little pricey for a Long Island theater, somewhere in the $70-$75 range; and 2. As the website makes clear, the parking isn't the greatest. The theater is right in the middle of town, and it doesn't have its own parking lot. The second point is assuaged somewhat by the fact that the theater offers free valet parking (which we made sure we were there early enough to take advantage of). As for the first point, I was hoping that we'd be getting a Broadway-quality show that would make the tickets worth the price.

I usually try to start off my theater reviews by getting the negatives out of the way first, so here goes. ... OK, for the first time ever, I've got nothing. There were no negatives to this show. And it seems like the rest of the audience agreed, as there was an enthusiastic full-theater standing ovation at the end of the show. 

OK, so much for the negatives. Now for the positives.

The theater itself is handsome, with good site lines and good acoustics. My wife and I were sitting in the last row, but because the seating area curves upwards (we were technically considered to be sitting in the mezzanine), we had no trouble either seeing or hearing anything. And there are restrooms conveniently located in the upstairs area, in addition to restrooms in the lobby.

I'd never seen Once before, although I've owned the cast album for a few years. It's one of those shows I would have liked to have seen on Broadway, but I just never quite managed it. The live show is based on the 2007 film of the same name. It ran on Broadway from 2012 to 2015, playing for over a thousand performances, and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical for 2012. It's a quirky and bittersweet romance that takes place in the city of Dublin between an Irish man and a young Czech woman, both of whom are musicians. We never learn the names of these two characters -- they are only referred to in the program as "Guy" and "Girl".

I knew a lot about the show going in. What I didn't know is that it's often fairly funny -- the Girl character, in particular, is amusingly blunt and assertive -- and that the other characters of the play are likewise eccentric, but extremely likable. The stage setting is that of an Irish pub (and the audience is invited to go onstage and buy a drink both prior to the show, and at the intermission), although the actual action of the play takes place in a few different places. And most unique, the entire cast plays their own musical instruments. The style of music is mostly Irish (and sometimes Czech) folk, so the score sounds more like some of the better fare you might hear at the Irish version of a local coffee house than it does like a typical Broadway score.

The cast in this production is universally excellent. Barry Debois, who plays Guy, has a stunningly beautiful tenor voice. (I really wanted to say "Irish tenor voice", because his performance was so good that it wasn't until I started to write this review that I thought about the fact that he's a New Yorker who's played a multitude of musical theater roles. I'm pretty sure he doesn't actually sing with an Irish brogue when he plays Brad from The Rocky Horror Show or Tony in West Side Story, for example, which are a just a couple of the many shows on his resume). In any event, his  musical talent blew me away on numbers like "Leave", which opens the play, or "Gold", which ends the first act. In addition to his sweet, sweet vox, he plays a mean acoustic guitar.

As for Andrea Goss, who plays Girl, besides having a lovely voice, she showed serious comedic talent throughout. But she also managed to deliver a touching performance when the role allowed her to open up and show some of her character's vulnerability. And while her one solo number, "The Hill", was quite well done, "Falling Slowly", the first duet she and Debois performed together, was exquisite -- so good it sent shivers up my spine. She also plays a damned fine piano.

The rest of the cast was excellent as well, and I hesitate to start singling them out for fear of missing someone. Guy's father, Girl's mother, Girl's flatmates -- all did creditable jobs. If I had to throw special accolades to one, however, it would be to Stephen McIntyre, for his warm yet comedic portrayal of a Bank Manager who aspires to be something more.

I said earlier that my hope was that the price of the tickets for this play would be indicative of a Broadway-quality show. As it turns out, it absolutely was. Once was worth the money and then some. The show itself is a beautiful show, and I related very strongly to its message of how music has the power to elevate our lives. As for this production, it was golden. 

Once will run at the Engeman Theater through March 4. Their next upcoming show, beginning March 15, is another that won the Tony Award for Best Musical (in 2008). It's also another show with an ensemble of strong and likable characters: Lin Manuel-Miranda's In the Heights. This is a show that I have seen before, and I can promise that fans and admirers of Miranda's Hamilton are likely to love this show as well.