Day 30: Audiences fell quickly for record-breaking musical in Golden
There have only been a handful of Broadway musicals where the actors themselves have fully replaced an orchestra, and the concept is even more rare here in Colorado. To think you can find 13 quadruple-threat actors who can sing, dance, act and play musical instruments to pull off the contemporary Irish musical Once, you’d have to be, as they would say in Dublin, “a thick plank eejit.” (Translated: “A thick-headed idiot.”)
Miners Alley Playhouse Artistic Director Len Matheo is no thick plank eejit.
“It took courage for Len to put Once on the schedule,” said veteran Music Director David Nehls, who has won four Henry Awards and overseen dozens of musicals over his career but places Once “easily among my top five of all time.”
The sold-out production in Golden, which was extended for a week, was the most-attended show in Miners Alley Playhouse’s 18-year history. The 3,200 attendance total obliterated the previous record by 800.
Once, The 2012 Tony Award-winning Best Musical based on the 2007 film written by and starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, tells the simple story of an Irish guy and a Czech girl (known simply as Guy and Girl) who share a brief relationship after she takes an interest in his haunting love songs. Its breakaway hit song “Falling Slowly” warranted widespread radio play at the time. As Nehls politely put it: “Once is such a beautiful piece – but not every market can pull it off.”
‘The simple truth is this is an astonishingly good show everyone should go see.’ – Alex Miller, OnStage Colorado
The particular needs of this show made the audition process much more high-stakes than unusual. “People were really gunning for it,” said Nehls, whose concerns were considerably allayed when he saw the caliber of artists who showed up for those auditions. For example: Master concert violinist Allegra Ludwig Michael, “who burns up the stage like a Slavic firebird,” Patrick Dorn wrote in his review. And film veteran Denis Berkfeldt, who played Guy’s “Da” (and a pretty mean guitar).
The highly competitive process produced a top-rate combination of area actors and musicians:
- John Hauser: Guitar
- Carmen Vreeman Shedd: Piano
- Joel Abelson: Cajón drums and guitar
- Allegra Ludwig Michael: Violin and more
- Katie Jackson: Violin
- Ellen Gauthier: Squeeze box
- Damon Guerrasio: Drums and guitar
- Nelson Walker: Cello
- David Miller: Piano, mandolin and more
- Parker Fowler: Ukulele and guitar
- Aaron Vega: Mandolin, drums, guitar and bass
- Denis Berkfeldt: Guitar
- Morgan Murphy: Banjo
That list was endlessly surprising to Nehls. “We have all seen some of those actors on area stages for years, but I had no idea of the depth of the musicianship of people like David Miller and Katie Jackson and Aaron Vega,” Nehls said. “I had no idea Damon Guerrasio is a drummer.”
But Nehls was perhaps most surprised by his Guy and Girl. Hauser, a True West Award-winning actor with a look that screams “Hello! My name is Elder Price!” is also a guitar-maker and aspiring singer-songwriter in the mold of M. Ward or Michael Nau. But he had never appeared in a conventional stage musical before in his life. Still, “John is inherently musical, and that made him perfect for the role,” Nehls said. “I told him his next job should be playing Danny Zuko in Grease.”
And Nehls, who was cocooned for years as the resident Music Director at the Arvada Center, was unaware that Shedd is a longtime rock star of the Colorado Springs musical-theatre community. She recently was featured in the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College’s Hands on a Hardbody but is probably best known to Denver audiences for Metamorphoses at the Aurora Fox back in 2013. Despite the vastly differing backgrounds of his leads, Matheo and Nehls captured lightning in a casting bottle.
All it took was a bottle of whiskey.
“We were asking a lot of them, particularly of John,” said Nehls. “I knew it was going to be all about trust and breaking down that wall of insecurity. So I had John and Carmen over to my place and I said, ‘I don’t care how drunk we get, we’re going to get through these songs,” Nehls said with a laugh. “John cares so much and he is relentlessly self-deprecating, so my job was getting him to stop self-editing and just … be.”
Safe to say Hauser, who began painstakingly aging his stage guitar for authenticity months in advance of the show, “blasted out of his shell like a rocket,” in Matheo’s words. Wrote Alex Miller for OnStage Colorado: “Hauser gets just right the artist’s cursed persona of talent, hope and despair all rolled into one.”
Above: Listen to an original Christmas song by John Hauser and Mark Collins.
And of Shedd, Nehls said simply: “That woman is gold. She is the real deal. I have never seen anybody work harder, or be more gracious in the rehearsal process. She has a protective, motherly quality with people. And her performance was killer.” Westword’s Juliet Wittman said simply: “Carmen Vreeman Shedd owns the role.”
Nehls said special mention must be made of Vega, known to Denver Center audiences for his comic appearances in Garner-Galleria Theatre stagings of First Date and Xanadu. He was Nehls’ musical captain and “the MVP of the entire production,” said Nehls. “After the show opened and I went on to my next job at the Aurora Fox, the responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the piece fell to Aaron, and he crushed it.”
It was also Vega’s job to establish the joyful tone of the evening with a short pre-show concert performed by the ensemble. “It’s supposed to be just three songs, but Aaron turned it into a big, half-hour party,” Nehls said. “That was a show in itself.”
When Once finally ended its run in Golden on October 18, it had been, for all concerned, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And something happened that night that Nehls hadn’t seen since he originated the role of Riff-Raff for the European tour of The Rocky Horror Show. “The closing performance couldn’t have been better. It was all the things you could want and more,” said Nehls. “And I am telling you: A full three minutes after the actors finally left the stage, that audience was still applauding.”
- “This Once provided one of the happiest, loveliest and most life-affirming evenings I’ve spent in a theater.” – Juliet Wittman, Westword
- “Once is a defining moment in Miners Alley Playhouse’s surge into the upper levels of Denver’s already impressive theatrical atmosphere. It’s a ‘must-see’ production of a truly original musical. – Patrick Dorn, patrickdornreviewer.com
- Director: Len Matheo
- Music Director: David Nehls
- Choreographer: Angie Simmons
- Scenic Designer: Jonathan Scott-McKean
- Sound Designer: Justin Babcock
- Costume Design: Crystal McKenzie
- Lighting Design: Vance McKenzie
- Stage Manager: Bryanna Scott
- Dialect Coach: Mark Collins
- Prop Master: Elizabeth Scott-McKean
Video trailer: Once at Miners Alley Playhouse
Video by RayBaileyTV.
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 19th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2019 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org