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Grand Rapids Civic Theatre Stages Funny, Aching Musical Once

Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s production of Once is a big-hearted show filled with humor, emotion, and powerful music.

/Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

Grand Rapids Civic Theatre has the reputation of being haunted, but until recently I had never seen its ghost. That changed on Thursday, September 29th, as I settled in to watch Once.

"For years, I was enchanted with the idea of being a muse," the woman to my right said. "I dated so many weak and sensitive men. Ugh, they would write me poetry. I despise poetry.So unlikely was it that a living person would speak in such a way that I turned my head, certain I would see through her skin, but by then people were taking the stage.

The show started before it started; prior to the true opening, musicians ran through a short but energetic set. Rin Tarsy Jandernoa, later to play Girl, the female lead, led a rousing, celebratory "Wagon Wheel." It was beautiful: a reminder that, despite the pandemic, Civic is still here, and so are we. The songs that followed, some original, were just as lively. At times, audience members hooted and cheered.

The play proper opened with Guy (Owen Smith) playing "Leave," a bitter farewell both to a lover and, in this instance, music itself. After finishing, he kissed his guitar ("Ugh, gross," I heard to my right) and set it down for the last time. Or what he thought was the last time. Girl had arrived: a pretty, buoyant Czech immigrant, she would push him to keep playing, and she would complicate his life. 

It would be easy to dismiss Girl as another in a long line of manic pixie dream girls: those beautiful, quirky women who see past the absurdities of a man and drag him into embracing life. It's all gendered and heteronormative, of course; it also happens to come true, at least sometimes. And Girl is more complex than her introduction might lead a viewer to believe; besides, her optimism, practicality, and strength are as much hallmarks of the average immigrant as they are some modern-day trope.

Quickly, Guy's world expands. Pushed by Girl, he puts on a new suit; he applies for a loan; he records a demo. And in a matter of days, he finds himself falling in love. But that tells you less about where the show is going than you might think. Once is a sly show, wise and surprising, and shot through with the alternating humor and melancholy so central to Irish art that it must be present in the soil itself.

In the performance I saw, no one stumbled, no accent slipped, and every opportunity for a laugh or a tug of the heart was seized. Smith and Jandernoa were both excellent, as were Bud Thompson (as Guy's Da) and Ashley Kooistra (as Guy's ex-girlfriend, who haunts the stage before being revealed as a real, three-dimensional person). I would be remiss in not mentioning my niece, Hadley Smelker, who is of course adorable as little Ivonka.

As much as I enjoyed it, I suspected that my spectral seat-mate, witih her disdain for sensitive men, would not. But even she said, "Hey, that was actually good," before rising to her feet to deliver a standing ovation. Once: lively enough to move the dead. Don't miss it for anything.

To learn more, and to purchase tickets, visit

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