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‘Once’ celebrates the unrelenting power of love, music despite too big a space

Barry DeBois plays Guy and Tiffany Topol portrays Girl in the musical "Once" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. | Liz Lauren

Some shows simply do not work in a house built for 1,885 people. Or at least, don’t work as well as they would in a venue built for intimacy rather than grandeur. You can add “Once” to that list. Running through June 3 at the palatial Paramount Theatre, Aurora, “Once” is a small show with huge heart. The tale of Girl and Guy has all the ache and wonder of a first true love. It is also in danger of being swallowed up by its massive surroundings at the Paramount.

‘Once’
★★★
When: Through June 3
Where: Paramount Aurora, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Tickets: $36 – $64
Info: paramountaurora.com
Run time: 2 hour, 25 minutes including one 15-minute intermission

You surely cannot argue with the performances director Jim Corti gets from Tiffany Topol (Girl) and Barry DeBois (Guy) as the tentative couple who forges fragile, melodic bond across music and heartbreak. With a book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, “Once” has a deceptively gentle aesthetic. You might not feel it coming, but you’re apt to reach curtain call with a big ol’ lump in your throat.

Under music director Tom Vendafreddo, “Once” is a celebration of raucous camaraderie and a hushed testimony to the power of love and music. When the full 19-person ensemble goes to town on twangtastic, folk-infused foot-stompers, you can hear the history and the joy of generations pouring from the strings. When Topol and DeBois lock into the two-part harmonies of the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly,” the sound is transcendent.

Paramount’s cast is emphatically authentic when it comes to the music, with many playing their own instruments.  Take, for example, Mendelssohn’s hypnotic, deceptively simple “Venetian Boat Song: Song Without Words;” it’s one of the most intense and delicate pieces the composer wrote. Topol plays it live on stage (as she does with much of the score’s piano music); it is positively haunting and exquisite.

There’s a similar intensity – if an entirely different mood – to “Ej Pada Pada, Rosicka,” a downhome, hootenanny of a Czech folk song performed with gusto by the ensemble. The music provides a bridge between unlikely confidantes: Girl is a Czech living in Dublin, sharing a “flat” with several others and trying to eke out a modicum of joy without shirking the heavy family responsibilities she faces. She encounters Guy, an Irishman, as he’s half-heartedly busking on the streets of Dublin. Guy is brokenhearted and angry. Girl sees far past that. She believes his music should be heard by the world at large. He’s not so sure.

The chemistry between Girl and Guy is everything in this musical, and DeBois and Topol mesh both musically and emotionally. His gradual ascent out of despair is moving, as is her genuine desire to bring the world’s attention to his glorious music. There’s thrill to be had hearing the sound of half a dozen (or so) guitars strumming in mighty unison, and Vendafreddo makes the most of it.

Still, “Once” suffers from the very intimacy that makes it soar. Set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec has basically cut the Paramount stage in half, framing the actors with a cube that serves as a local pub and a vacuum cleaner repair shop, among others. But even boxed-in, the cast is dwarfed by its surroundings. The simplicity of the story gets lost on the Paramount’s cavernous stage.

There’s also a problem in the script itself: We never get to know Guy and Girl. When they fall in love, it feels random. Her obsessive drive to make him succeed feels manufactured to keep the plot moving along.

If it’s music you’re after, you could do far worse than the bittersweet “Once.” The script has troubles. The score is extraordinary.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

Barry DeBois plays Guy and Tiffany Topol portrays Girl in “Once,” directed by Jim Corti at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. | Liz Lauren