As terrific and utterly unique as the Alliance’s large-scale, high-tech new musical “Maybe Happy Ending” is, there’s also something to be said for the more intimate, no less resounding style and charm of Horizon Theatre’s wonderful “Once” — the 2012 Broadway hit, featuring a script by Irish playwright Enda Walsh and songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who co-starred in director John Carney’s acclaimed 2007 indie movie musical on which the stage version is based.
The deceptively simple and straightforward story involves a struggling Dublin street singer, whose chance encounter with a Czech woman leads to a whirlwind relationship, if not exactly a conventional romance. Identified only as Guy and Girl, they become soul mates of sorts as songwriting collaborators, but they aren’t necessarily destined to live happily ever after, at least not with one another: Guy’s still pining for his ex-girlfriend (who left him for New York), and Girl’s waiting to reunite with her husband (who’s back home in the Czech Republic).
The highly energetic show is directed by frequent Horizon artistic associate Heidi Cline McKerley (“Avenue Q”). For her purposes here, the theater’s seating has been neatly reconfigured in-the-round, which enables the nine-member ensemble to spread out a bit, periodically roaming the aisles or perching atop platforms in different corners of the performance space, cleverly immersing the audience in several dazzling musical numbers.
Under the music direction of Ed Thrower (Serenbe’s "Hair"), “Once” doesn’t include the usual sequestered band or orchestra. Each actor in the cast plays an instrument, in addition to a character. As Guy, local musical-theater luminary Chase Peacock (Serenbe’s “Miss Saigon,” Georgia Ensemble’s “Ghost”) masters a mean guitar (as he did for Atlanta Lyric’s “The Wedding Singer”). As Girl, relative newcomer Maggie Salley (Theatre Buford’s “Footloose”) does the same on piano.
Rounding out the troupe of multitalented actor-musicians — in various bit parts, and on everything from banjos and fiddles to upright bass and even accordion — are Skyler Brown, Daniel Burns, Chris Damiano, Jessica De Maria, Paul Glaze, Hayden Rowe and Sophia Sapronov. There’s nary a false note among them, and Glaze’s comic turn as a bank manager is especially memorable (singing “Abandoned in Bandon,” one of a few new songs to the show).
Among the most familiar tunes carried over from the film soundtrack: the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly,” beautifully delivered by Peacock and Salley; his impassioned solo “Say It to Me Now”; their other duets “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and “If You Want Me” (accompanied by the rest of the ensemble); and a lovely a cappella company rendition of “Gold.” Most sorely missed among the songs dropped from the movie is Guy’s moving ballad “Lies.”
Some of the plot points and character details are occasionally blurry. Whether as written, directed or portrayed, for example, at times Salley comes across a tad too gregariously for a woman who, at other times, describes herself as being so “serious” and “cold.” For his part, however, Peacock acquits himself quite persuasively, giving one of his best performances to date as a good-hearted romantic frustrated by love and life.
Still, there’s no mistaking the bittersweet chemistry the two co-stars share. Or the elevating power generated by the music they make together, with such an invaluable assist from their glorified back-up band at large. Or the plain fact that, in its many musical moments, Horizon’s “Once” is undeniably and simply sensational.
Through March 8. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. $35-$45. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. (in Little Five Points), Atlanta. 404-584-7450. horizontheatre.com.
Bottom line: Splendidly delivered by a multitalented ensemble.
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