Jacob Brandt feels right at home – literally and figuratively – at the Boston Center for the Arts. After all, the 27-year-old Jewish actor-musician studied at Brookline’s Park School, celebrated his bar mitzvah at Newton’s Temple Beth Avodah, and earned a degree in theater and playwriting at Harvard.
Avid theatergoers should recall his work as the Jewish family son in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Caroline, Or Change.” That comfortable feeling is proving just as true about Brandt’s role in the company’s latest effort at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion.
Recently, Brandt – who grew up in Newton and now lives in New York – spoke to the Journal about the affinity between Czech immigrant service worker Andrej – the role he plays in the company’s staging of the home-celebrating musical “Once” (now extended through April 7) – and his own Eastern European ancestry.
“My family comes from Russia and Hungary,” Brandt noted. At the same time, the multi-talented musician – who plays guitar, ukulele, banjo, and bass guitar, as well as Irish bouzouki and tambourine throughout the musical – described a pre-performance number he leads as “a Czech folk song.” When asked about a small stretch that sounded as though infused with klezmer aspects, he agreed. “That musical style is certainly found in klezmer music,” he responded.
As for Brandt’s own association with Andrej, he said, “I have East European blood, and I feel I look East European.” Reflecting on the tightness of the musical’s characters, he described them as a “Czech extended family constantly looking out for each other.”
Brandt can relate. “Growing up in a Jewish family, I do see the value of family,” he said. “Something I really enjoy about the show itself is how everybody is constantly having each other’s back. There is this kind of collective effort.”
“Once,” based on the 2007 John Carney film of the same name with the original by turns sweet and snappy Glen Hansard-Markéta Irglová score, is a disarming combination of the personal and the collective. Enda Walsh’s seemingly simple book has symbolically named Guy – a Dubliner who fixes vacuum cleaners but means to develop a career in music – and Girl – a Czech who plays piano, has written her own compositions, and cares for her daughter Ivonka – demonstrate mutual chemistry but remain on the threshold of romance. At the same time, the music-playing characters join together with Guy to practice and put together a CD of songs while the Czech immigrants bolster Girl’s and their own hopes and dreams. Fans of the touching screen predecessor will know from the start whether Guy will head for New York with his recording and the intention of making up with his wife, and Girl stays true to her husband.
Under Paul Melone’s careful direction, the SpeakEasy cast becomes a harmonious musical ensemble despite diverse views about capitalism and life. Steven Ladd Jones provides strong musical direction for cast members as they play various string and percussion instruments ‒ most notably on the first act closer “Gold” and its later reprise. Ilyse Robbins’ choreography crisply captures the distinctive moves of Dublin and Czech dances. Nile Scott Hawver has the right mix of insecurity and heart as Guy, and Mackenzie Lesser-Roy is even better – strikingly spontaneous and passionate yet conscience-guided – as Girl. Supporting standouts include Billy Butler’s hot-tempered music store owner Billy, Jeff Song’s alternately defensive and self-validating bank manager, Brandt’s weary but ambitious service worker Andrej, and Marta Rymer’s flirtatious but well-intentioned Czech confidante for Girl, Reza. Hawver and Roy make the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly” as dreamy and wistful as in the film.
“Falling Slowly” embraces choice even in the face of challenge. SpeakEasy Stage’s individual and collective talents rise to the show’s challenges with a production that will win your heart.
Andrej may struggle to achieve his dreams, but Brandt is clear about upcoming projects. “I’ve been very fascinated by Marc Chagall. I think his painting would lend itself very well to music that brings me joy. That’s certainly one [project] I’m looking to do in the future.”
For show times and tickets, visit bostontheatrescene.com or call 617-933-8600.