A checkered floor, a bar, instruments set up onstage, the heat of stage lights the feeling is that of having stumbled into a tucked-away Irish bar in the center of Dublin. Instead, it's the set for "Once," the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical that opens at Broadway San Jose April 21.
Among the cast is Alex Nee, a Palo Alto native and 2009 Palo Alto High School graduate who returns to the region as Andrej in the touring production of the musical. Before this tour, Nee played the lead character, Johnny, in the touring production of "American Idiot." Only a couple years out of college, he has launched quickly into professional theater work, but speaks humbly about his ambitions for the future.
"There's so many unknowns in theater and the fact that so far the train has kept going is really amazing," he said in a recent interview. "I feel pretty lucky."
As an actor, Nee has always been precocious -- he performed his first show in third grade at Addison Elementary School. He continued to participate in drama throughout his childhood and teen years, and took his passion with him to Northwestern University, where he majored in musical theater with a minor in economics. During his junior year at Northwestern, a casting director from New York City saw Nee's performance in a production of "Rent" and asked him to audition for the touring production of "American Idiot." In 2012, after 7 months of auditioning, Nee was finally cast in the production. He took a hiatus from school and toured the U.K. and U.S. with the show for about 10 months. Toward the end of the tour, Nee was offered his role in "Once." In between the two tours, he finished his B.A.
Since August of 2013, Nee has been touring nationally and internationally with "Once," a musical adaptation of the 2007 independent Irish film by the same name. But as Nee explained, the musical is more than just a staging of the movie.
"The musical does a really good job of capturing the essence and the spirit of the movie, but for that to happen and for it to be a stage play to be performed live and in these larger houses; that obviously demands different ways of interpreting the same spirit," Nee said.
The Dublin-based story centers around a serendipitous musical collaboration between Guy, a busker and a vacuum repairman, and Girl, a Czech immigrant and flower vendor. Nee, who understudies the part of Guy, plays Andrej, a member of Girl's Czech community who dreams of becoming the area manager of a fast-food chain. In his struggle for success, Andrej finds solace playing bass for Guy and Girl's band.
One of the primary differences between the movie and the musical is the ensemble nature of the stage version, which has thirteen characters; the movie is intimately focused on Guy and Girl.
The actors in the stage production play all the music for the show. Nee, who plays electric bass, ukulele, guitar and cajón throughout the performance, spoke of the importance of live music to the production's impact.
"The show is about the power of music ... and to be able to see and feel and almost touch the music that's being made makes it so much more palpable and exciting," he said.
The touring show is also different from the original stage production of "Once," which premiered at New York Theatre Workshop in 2011 and transferred to Broadway in 2012. Nee explained that the score for the current touring production was personalized and partly created by the ensemble in a collaborative process with the directing team. The songs are still recognizable as the original music of the movie, but they now bear the ensemble's collaborative touches. This personalization of the production extended from the music to how Nee plays his character. Director John Tiffany, movement director Steven Hoggett and music director Martin Lowe were adamant from the beginning that the touring production of "Once" would be created with the new cast and that they were not aiming simply to re-stage the original production.
After the show's run concludes at the end of the 2015 calendar year, Nee is considering spending a couple of months in Los Angeles to explore the possibilities of the TV pilot season and to learn more about about on-screen acting. If not Los Angeles, he's thinking about moving to New York City. Meanwhile, he is writing music with an album in mind and hoping to find other musicians to collaborate with. He's also currently working on the score for an independent production of "Antigone" based out of Chicago.
When asked what draws him to performance, Nee explained, "My acting teacher once said, 'You should try to find the life-or-death stakes in every scene that you're playing.' And so I think that makes it really exciting and vibrant and allows me to be really passionate about it. But at the same time, it's a play. I get to play around for my job. And so to have that dichotomy; I think that's what's attracts me to it so much."
Maev Lowe is an editorial intern at Palo Alto Weekly.
For more information on the Broadway San Jose production of Once, go to broadwaysanjose.com or call 1-800-982-2787.