SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — The best pre-show advice one can offer about "Once" is to arrive at the theater early. It's not because late-comers won't be seated. It's because there is a great big happy, joyous and rather boisterous party taking place at an onstage pub before the show actually starts. Some lucky audience members are invited to share a drink, sing a song and dance along with the actors. This is, after all, a play set in Dublin, Ireland.
It is an important moment because, as one of the leads, McKenzie Lesser-Ray, says, "It sets the tone for the show by letting the audience know it is a musical about the love of music and the love of performing music."
The plot of this 2012 Tony Award-winning musical — which arrives Tuesday evening at Proctors for a limited run through May 15 — revolves about an Irish busker who is about to quit playing music. His songs are about unrequited love based on his relationship with a girlfriend who just broke up with him and moved to New York City. Instead of finding joy in his music it is now filled with painful memories.
When a young female immigrant from Czechoslovakia hears him sing she is attracted to his music. When he finishes the song she sees him throw down and abandon his guitar. She intercedes and tries to convince him of his gifts.
This begins a complicated collaboration where two people from different cultures become professional partners and supportive friends. Soon they start to have emotional feelings towards each other which further complicates their relationship.
She is a single mother and her ex-husband is pressuring her to reconcile. He is still heartbroken over his former girlfriend. The struggles they overcome to play music together heals them and leads them to a decision that shapes their lives.
The two leads are listed as Girl and Guy (played in this national touring company by Sam Cieri). In a telephone interview, Lesser-Ray said she likes that they are not identified by name, saying, "It becomes a play about everyone, everywhere."
Girl certainly is a role Lesser-Ray identifies with, claiming she even plays the cast album on her off-days. "This show is very special to me. I discover something new every night."
She says the role called to her when she first saw it on Broadway. By the second time she saw it "It was already my dream role.
"My character is so easy to connect to as a person. She's a tough cookie, but even though she tries to cover it up, she's also sentimental. She's the kind of person who cares about everyone else and tries to fix them. I think it was the pain in his music that drew her to him."
In "Once," Girl plays the piano. Lesser-Ray studied classical piano since she was five and jazz piano for the past three years. She has also been playing the cello for 15 years. Clearly, music is important to her as much as it is a plot element in the play.
"I think music is important to everyone's life. This show shows the restorative power of music. It helps you to express pain and sorrow as well as joy and happiness. 'Once' is about the celebration of the power of music. I start out trying to save his music and I end up saving his soul. You can't separate one from the other."
Lesser-Ray makes it clear "Once" is not a two person show. "At the end there are no individual bows. We take a group bow. That indicates that every character in the show is important. If you remove one character the whole thing falls apart. What connects and bonds everyone is music."
Because the show is about the power of music it sounds almost contradictory when she says "'Once' is a ... great show for those who are not already passionate about musical theater.
"This is not a typical musical. The music is provided by the cast members who never leave the stage. They sit on side of stage and enter the action when needed."
She also says the non-traditional staging is innovative and respectful of the audience's ability to embrace imagination.
However, for a story about two people who love each other and are trying to make it big in the world of professional music, it sounds almost ominous when she adds, "The story is about real people and real life. It's not a fairy tale."
What: "Once." Based on the 2007 Academy Award-winning film
Who: Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, music and lyrics; Edna Walsh, book; John Tiffany, direction; Stephen Hoggett, movement
Where: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady, N.Y.
When: Tuesday through May 15. Evenings — Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday at 1:30; Saturday and Sunday at 2
How: (518) 346-6204; proctors.org; in person at Proctors box office