For multi-talented performer Donna Garner, tuneful musical is a great fit

Donna-GarnerDonna Garner first sang in front of an audience when she was five years old. She began piano about a year later, violin when she was nine, cello when she was 12…

We could go on. The veteran stage star, who currently plays the role of Baruška in the musical Once, which opens Wednesday at the Winspear Opera House, has chops that could fill a Wikipedia page and beyond.

“I studied at Oxford for a couple summers in an opera program,” she notes casually and without an ounce of pretentiousness, as she gives me a quick rundown of her varied background.

That background certainly comes in handy for her current role. Once is the tale of two characters — Guy, a young Irishman busking in Dublin, and his love interest, Girl, a Czech immigrant. Baruška is Girl’s mother. The show takes place in a raucous Irish pub, and all the music is played live by the actors. For her part, Garner plays concertina, piano, fiddle and accordion — an instrument she had a whopping eight days to learn before her audition.

“I was already a professional pianist, so the right hand wasn’t so bad,” she says. “It was the left hand that drove me crazy for a while. But I figured it out well enough that they hired me.”

The musicianship of the role was a natural fit for Garner, but so, it turned out, was Baruška’s character.

“I love playing Baruška because she’s a really, really strong woman. She’s been through a lot but she’s also warm,” Garner says. “She’s watching her daughter who’s an adult and trying to figure out her own life and she’s watching her make those decisions and figure it out, and she’s watching her with great pride and great love. I love the character because she reminds me of my mother.”
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Garner grew up in rural Canada, in “a house bursting with music.” The atmosphere in Once’s Irish pub has some similarities: specifically, that special intimacy that is intertwined with a love of performance music.
“We love playing music together,” says Garner of her castmates. “This group is a really talented group of people, very sensitive musicians. We’re kind of like a family: Sometimes we get along better than others, but when we play music together — wow!”

That “wow” is something audiences get to connect with in a unique way. Before each show, the audience is invited to get onstage and hang out on the set, which also happens to be a working bar. About 20 minutes before the show, the cast comes out and performs a loose jam session of Irish and Czech folk songs (ticketholders are encouraged to get to the show about 30 to 40 minutes early to participate).

“People love it,” Garner says, the excitement in her voice rising slightly. “Their fascination of being up onstage and looking out from the stage, the look on their faces — I love it.”

— Joanna Widner

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 12, 2014