Review: CVRep’s ‘Once,’ a non-traditional musical, is the flawless performance this valley stage deserves

It’s as if the Los Angeles Philharmonic suddenly transformed into the energetic cast of “Fame” with Irish brogues and Czech accents.
A scene from CVRep’s performance of ‘Once.’ (Photo: David A. Lee)

My wife turned to me midway through the first act of “Once” last Thursday at the Coachella Valley Repertory and said, “Finally, a musical worthy of this theater.”

That’s not a stretch, based on how many musicals have been produced in the converted IMAX theater since the CVRep moved in in 2019. Its last show, the delightful “Dirty Blonde,” was a play with music. CVRep’s only previous big musical, “Chess,” was beleaguered, at best.

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But Jane’s point reflects what many people I spoke to were thinking. CVRep has produced some great plays in that building. But what distinguishes it from other desert facilities is the size of its stage, the intimacy of its house and the sophistication of its technology. I’ve seen great plays in a trailer. But the true test of a theater is its ability to do musicals. And this non-traditional musical delivers.

Adam Karsten’s direction of “Once” is the realization of the CVRep dream.

It is flawless. What continually dazzled me was the multi-level talent of every cast member. They could play instruments from violins to drums as adeptly as they could act. Paul Lincoln, a New York actor doing a repeat performance as the musical bank manager, sings and plays electric guitar to comic effect, adds to the ensemble’s lush orchestral sound on cello, and tinkles on piano like a great, invisible lounge artist.

It’s as if the Los Angeles Philharmonic suddenly transformed into the energetic cast of “Fame” with Irish brogues and Czech accents.

“Once,” the Broadway musical based on the film by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who starred and wrote the music) and director John Carney, tells the story of a talented but broken singer-songwriter who is revitalized by a vibrant Czech piano-playing girl who decides a guy she meets in Dublin must fulfill his personal and artistic dreams, even if she can’t realize her own.

Claire-Frances Sullivan of New York plays the Girl with a depth that reveals her marital turmoil without mentioning it. New York actor Ken Allen Neely plays the Guy with an empathy that resonates. But the whole cast is powerful. I can’t imagine an actor getting more out of his lines than Adam Huel Potter, a Kentucky-born, New York-based actor playing a proud socialist-leaning Irish entrepreneur.

It’s nice to see two Palm Springs-based actor-musicians contributing to this ensemble at the highest levels. Sean Brown, who recently had a part in the hilarious Eddie Murphy-Julia Louis-Dreyfus Netflix film, “You People,” plays guitar and a recording engineer who gets blown away by the Guy’s music. Philip Chaffin, who moved to Palm Springs in 2021 after a decorated career on Broadway and regional theater, plays ukulele and mandolin and portrays the Guy’s difficult but proud father.

Of course, what’s unique about the show is that its original music stands up to the hyperbole in the dialogue. Chaffin tells his son, after listening to the demo he and his friends have recorded, that the music is brilliant. And it is. “Falling Slowly” won a Best Original Song Oscar and was a big hit for Hansard’s band, The Frames, who played the 2007 Coachella. “When Your Mind’s Made Up” is an inspiring, uplifting ensemble number.

Music director Michael Reno, whose resume includes credits from London’s West End to the frickin’ White House, works masterfully with Karsten to execute each number precisely. And the sound in the theater, designed by Joshua Adams, is pristine.

CVRep’s long-time designer, Jimmy Cuomo, creates another great set conveying Dublin’s sense of musical community and Karsten utilizes it with no clumsy set changes.

But, as Jane also noted after the standing ovation, it’s nice to leave the theater humming something other than the sets.

Details: The show in Cathedral City runs through March 11. Tickets: or (760) 296-2966, ext. 115.

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