OLNEY – Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has lent her talents to numerous regional theaters, opera and television, among other venues. She has staged and choreographed off-Broadway and on winning Tony nominations for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Revival of a Musical in for “Ragtime,” which opened in 2009.
She is also the recipient of a Helen Hayes Award.
However, one place she had not worked was Olney Theatre Center. That is about to change, as Olney presents the residential regional premiere of “Once,” with Milgrom Dodge at its helm.
She and Olney artistic director Jason Loewith had been in conversation about the “right project” for her. They chose the Broadway musical about itinerant musicians, or buskers, in Ireland, inspired by the 2007 film by the same name and its Oscar-winning song, “Falling Slowly.”
“‘Once’ transports you to another place,” said Milgrom Dodge. “I fell in love with it. The characters are authentic.”
Guy, portrayed at Olney by Gregory Maheu, is a street guitarist about to give up on his dreams of becoming a musician when he meets Girl (Malinda Kathleen Reese). She encourages him to fall back in love with the wonder of music.
The book is by Enda Walsh. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova wrote the music and lyrics.
What makes “Once” different is that its ensemble of actor/musicians play their own instruments live – onstage.
Unlike other shows with actors playing music, “Once” started out with that concept – rather than falling into it. “The storytelling and music are part of the tapestry,” Milgrom Dodge said.
Christopher Youstra might be called a “triple threat” in “Once.” He is associate artistic director at Olney but also acts as the emcee in the show, as well as music director who leads the ensemble.
“I have only three lines,” he laughed, “though it’s a rich part. I’m not here for my acting ability.”
For Youstra, “Once’ goes beyond the normal conceit of musicals, in that its creators had just written these songs, and the songs are what the actors use to communicate.”
Youstra found the lyrics of the multiple Tony Award-winning musical even more appealing than the music.
“This is definitely not an old-fashioned musical, because it’s not dominated by melody, but more by the lyrics,” he said. “The songs can’t be separated from the characters. “They’re integral to what these people are.”
Moreover, some members of the ensemble play several instruments.
Milgrom Dodge, who said she “doesn’t take other directors’ ideas,” is returning to the movie version’s concept of the action taking place outdoors, rather than in an Irish bar, as in the original stage adaptation.
The musical’s construction, both Youstra and Milgrom Dodge agreed, “absolutely” created a challenge.
“We got far fewer people to show up for auditions,” he said. “The music has to be in people’s souls, not just that they happen to play an instrument. The characters are all frustrated musicians, not just people who are strumming a guitar.”
The actors/musicians also play pre-show, as audience members walk in.
The music, reflecting the ethnic backgrounds of the two leads, is “all pretty Irish, but contains a lot of Czech,” Youstra said. “It’s more of a folk idiom. The poetry of the lyrics is quite stunning.”
“Once,” Milgrom Dodge added, is “very romantic, on various levels of romance, though it’s an unconventional romance – not on a physical level. The ending is bittersweet, which is like life – not tied up in a neat little bow.”
“Once,” Youstra said, “is a great celebration of the human spirit. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
“Once” plays Feb. 6-March 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Visit www.olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.