Pick! ASR Theatre ~~ Hillbarn’s “Once” Tugs at Your Musical Heartstrings

By Joanne Engelhardt

A simple set-up has profound consequences in Once—a guy from Dublin, Ireland, a busker or street performer, meets a girl from Czechoslovakia. She recognizes his talent and encourages him to go to New York to pursue a musical career. That’s just one of many pieces in this musical at Foster City’s Hillbarn Theater through April 7.

For Once, the Hillbarn stage has a working saloon on one side where theatre patrons can purchase beer at intermission. The floor also revolves, so that during some songs, everyone on stage eventually gets around to the front to sing or play their instruments.

… It’ll keep your toes tapping– for Once! …

Written in 2007 as a film by John Carney, the musical premiered on Broadway in 2012 and won seven Tony Awards that year. Like the Broadway production, Hillbarn’s version has a minimalistic set with chairs on three sides. Cast members, who also serve as the orchestra when sitting in their chairs, simply step forward for their lines and sit down when others are the focus.

Kaylee Miltersen in “Once” at Hillbarn Theater. Photo: Tracy Martin.

What gives this production its authenticity are several fine actors, none better than Kaylee Miltersen playing Girl, a little scrap of a thing with an authentic-sounding Czech accent and a way of whipping out lines that cause the audience to laugh. She’s so delightful! Why wouldn’t the Irish musician Guy (Jake Gale) fall for her?

Gale has a wonderfully lilting voice that brings life to many of his songs, such as “Say It to Me Now,” “Leave,” and even “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” They all sound incredibly sincere. Miltersen and Gale team up on piano and guitar, respectively, and sing “Falling Slowly” and “If You Want Me”—simultaneously melting the audience’s hearts.

Musical instruments and connections abound (more on this in a minute), in fact, the accordion player is Girl’s mother, Baruska (a spirited Sarah Jebian, in an indelible performance). Another fine actor, Paul Henry, plays Billy—who owns a music store, is somewhat shy and thinks he’s in love with Girl. He attempts to show he’s a judo expert until his back gives out. Meanwhile, Guy and his father own a vacuum cleaner repair shop where Guy works. It happens, as Girl reminds Guy, that she has a Hoover vacuum that “doesn’t suck” so he needs to take it to his father’s shop for repair.

Cast of “Once” (L-R, Jake Gale, Jesse Cortez, Nicholas Conrad, and Chloe Angst) at work at the Hillbarn Theater. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

Hillbarn’s artistic director Steve Muterspauch lyrically directs Once, with assistance from choreographer Francesca Cipponeri to include modern dance and ballet moves as the musical progresses. For a few songs, timing must be perfect, and on opening night, it was.

As mentioned, nearly every minute of the two-act, roughly two-hour play is filled with music. There’s a cello playing in one corner (cellist, Kit Robberson), a guitar or two a minute later (Brad Satterwhite, Nicholas Conrad, Jesse Cortez), two violins (Nina Han and Karen Law) or Chloe Angst with their tattoos, attitude and angst (pun intended) up to the end of their spiked red hair. (And don’t forget the accordion!)

Nick Kenbrandt does a fine job as the bank manager who decides to take a chance on Guy when he needs a loan so he can get into a sound studio and make a complete recording of his songs to send to New York.

One small curiosity for this reviewer was why Hillbarn hired Equity actor Colin Thomson in the relatively insignificant role of Da? Thomson is a fine actor but has not much to do here except add his strong voice to group songs and play Girl’s father in one short scene.

“It’ll keep your toes tappin’! “Once” at the Hillbarn Theater. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

Musical director Amie Jan and vocal director Joseph Murphy did a masterful job of selecting actors who could also play musical instruments and sing, a necessity in this musical.

To set the right tone, costumer Lisa Claybaugh found outfits that nicely complimented each performer’s character. Lighting by Pamila Gray and sound by Jeff Mockus were first-rate. Two young sisters, Stella and Sybil Wyatt, play the small role as Girl’s daughter.

Although Once may not be everyone’s cup of tea, this reviewer believes that it certainly deserves bigger audiences than it had for opening night. Could be because Hillbarn patrons aren’t familiar with it as it hasn’t been performed on the Peninsula in years, if ever.

But seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical) say “Go see it!” It’ll keep your toes tapping– for Once!


Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net


Written byEnda Walsh
Directed bySteve Muterspaugh
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThru April 7th, 2024
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Other Voices on: “Once”

"...The script is ... steeped in wise and folksy observations about committing to love and taking chances..."The New York Times
"...captures the loveliness of the music, the likability of the characters, the fluidity of the staging, the sweetness of the ending..."The Chicago Sun Times
" ...Brilliant! Brilliant! Brilliant! This is one of those shows that remind you: magic is real..."New York Theatre Guide