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The musical ‘Once’ sounds fit as a fiddle at Olney Theatre

Gregory Maheu as Guy and the ensemble of “Once” at Olney Theatre Center. (Stan Barouh)
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Purist fans of the understated movie musical “Once” may never really accept the more outgoing stage adaptation, but seeing it live definitely packs its own pleasure. Take the new staging at the Olney Theatre Center: Even before the show starts, musician-actors treat the gathering crowd to a singalong “Norwegian Wood” and a transporting, fiddle-driven instrumental of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

With musical director Christopher Youstra onstage with the cast, there’s enough of that ear candy to make this a solid “Once,” even if Irish writer Enda Walsh’s 2012 Tony-winning script skews oddly toward comedy and a couple too many ba-dum-bum punchlines. That’s the dissonance between the projects: There was no room for such malarkey in the austere 2007 Irish movie, in which an anguished songwriter-guitarist we know as Guy pours his soul out on the street and a Czech pianist known as Girl takes a reviving interest.

A locally grown YouTube star returns to the stage in ‘Once’

Even so, it never takes long for that thing to kick in that makes “Once” “Once.” The plaintive tunes feel honest and raw, and then shift into unexpected, exhilarating gears.

One verse of the scorching ballad “Leave” tells you that Gregory Maheu has the guitar chops and a good, clear, gruff baritone as Guy. Malinda Kathleen Reese is effectively direct as Girl (though this role is where the stage version cutes itself up), and her quiet connection with Maheu is like a spring thaw when they play together.

This is a romance, as staged by director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge (of the Kennedy Center-to-Broadway “Ragtime”). The blue-gold tones of the design are warm and gorgeous, and the starry sky winks when it gets a chance. The emotional fuse doesn’t burn with as much tension as in the film; that little something sizzling between Guy and Girl isn’t so frazzled or buzzy. But the show passes the “Falling Slowly” test twice, acing that simmering, Oscar-winning song — and the rest of the score — with the lush strumming and fiddling that easily make the night worthwhile.

Once, book by Enda Walsh, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, based on the movie written and directed by John Carney. Set, Michael Schweikardt; lights, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Frank Labovitz; sound design, Matt Rowe. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. $54-$89. 301-924-3400.

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