'Once' is a singularly memorable musical trip at Lamb's Players Theatre

Like its title, which carries the bittersweet hint of a “once upon a time,” the captivating musical “Once” stops considerately and deliberately short of indulging in fairy tale.

In pretty much every other way, the Lamb’s Players Theatre production, on the other hand, just won’t quit.

I’m not generally a fan of big, overarching, “best thing since avocado toast”-type pronouncements, but still: This show easily ranks among the most accomplished I’ve seen over the past decade-plus at Lamb’s, and that includes the company’s memorable work on such musicals as “The Light in the Piazza” and “Les Misérables.”

And much of that is because “Once” draws on what Lamb’s, at its best, does so well already: Telling very human stories with multitalented performers and a rich sense of cohesive, committed ensemble.

It’s difficult even to draw bright lines between the impressive achievements here of director (and Lamb’s associate artistic chief) Kerry Meads, music director G. Scott Lacy and choreographer Colleen Kollar Smith, because the work of those three longtime collaborators melds so seamlessly in the piece.

And also because, in this show that’s so much about music, the cast members themselves play all of it.

At the forefront are two Lamb’s favorites, Caitie Grady and Michael Louis Cusimano, who prove ideal choices to play … well, it’s tempting to call them romantic leads, but things just aren’t that simple with “Once.”

The pair portray characters known only as the Guy and the Girl. He’s a dispirited Dublin street busker and vacuum-cleaner repairman, who, when we first meet him, is about to toss away his guitar and give up his musical dreams. She’s a Czech immigrant who plays piano and is pals with a motley group of fellow musicians from a pub and local music store.

The show’s blend of the boisterous and the more brooding asserts itself right from the start, when a preshow raveup in set designer Sean Fanning’s homey pub (it’s the real deal — you can actually buy drinks onstage before curtain) transitions to Cusimano’s intense and soulful solo take on a song of surrender, “Leave.”

But the Girl, who witnesses the Guy leaving his guitar behind, is having none of that; with deadpan wit and sheer implacability, she manages to get him to accompany her on one of his own songs, for which she has lifted the sheet music.

That song is “Falling Slowly,” the lush folk-rock ballad that won an Oscar in 2008 for Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the duo whose hit indie movie forms the basis for the Tony Award-winning musical, as adapted by Enda Walsh.

Grady and Cusimano play the song beautifully, joined gradually by the other members of the dozen-strong cast. Grady has been a key part of a whole lot of Lamb’s productions, but here her talents are in full force, as an affecting singer, fine pianist and tuned-in actor.

And Cusimano brings disarming charm and a real sense of soul-deep conflict to his character, as well as strong guitar chops and a potent singing voice.

There are complications; the Guy is still hung up on a different girl who has moved to New York, while the Girl has an estranged husband and a child. But what will happen to the pair’s relationship is not necessarily what you’d expect.

And in a way, it’s less important than a more universal experience that the musical nudges at. “Once” becomes a meditation — in a manner beyond simply matters of the romantic — on the abiding tension in life between longing and consummation.

If that sounds kind of heavy, though, “Once” — which is getting its first locally staged production — really is not. The show is full of music-infused lightness and witty performances.

Frequent Lamb’s hand Manny Fernandes, in particular, is endlessly entertaining as the goofball music-shop proprietor Billy, whose martial-arts skills are on a par with his (subpar) success with the ladies.

There are so many strong performances — both actorly and musical — that it’s hard to parse them all out. But such Lamb’s newcomers as Arusi Santi, Luke Monday, Temi Hason, Abigail Allwein, Jimmy Marino, James Michael McHale and Kent Brisby make auspicious debuts, complementing the good work of Lamb’s associate artistic director Deborah Gilmour Smyth (as the Girl’s spirited mom), Dave Rumley, and Bianca Rodriguez (who alternates in the role of the Girl’s daughter with Sadie Coleman).

The eye-catching contributions of costume designer Jeanne Reith, along with Nathan Peirson’s lighting and Patrick Duffy’s sound design, also boost the atmosphere of the 150-minute, one-intermission production, whose pace begins to waver ever so slightly toward the latter part of the second act.

As short on fairy tales as the show might be — besides a comically odd one that the Girl’s mom tells in Czech — what “Once” has to offer is plenty enough. But once might not be enough times to see it.

‘Once’

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through July 22.

Where: Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado

Tickets: $28-$78 (discounts available)

Phone: (619) 437-6000

Online: lambsplayers.org

jim.hebert@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @jimhebert

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