At 19, Mackenzie Lesser-Roy was about as sure of herself as Girl is a distinctive name for a female character. She was sure the opportunity to star in a national tour of “Once” would only present itself, well, once.
“I was 16 when I [first] saw the show,” she says. “I completely fell in love with it. I went back a second time because I just had to see it again. I always knew that Girl was a role I wanted to play. I just thought it was going to be 10 years into the future.”
Terrified but hopeful, Lesser-Roy left Boston Conservatory with an unfinished degree to join the Tony Award-winning musical’s second North American tour in 2016. The show, which was adapted from an Oscar-winning film of the same name, follows an almost-romance in the streets of Dublin between a hapless busker named Guy and a young Czech immigrant named Girl.
Hundreds of performances later, Lesser-Roy isn’t scared anymore, and her hope is something like belief. With SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Once,” which runs through April 7 at Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion, she’s reprising the role of Girl in the town she had to leave in order to get to know her.
“There’s always a risk when you hire somebody that’s been in a previous production,” says Paul Melone, the show’s director. “Are they going to be able to learn and grow with the rest of the ensemble that’s building this work of art for the first time? Or are they just going to slip into this groove of something [from] before? I never felt like [Mackenzie] was part of a different process than the rest of the ensemble.”
Nothing about Lesser-Roy’s performance is tired. It’s been worn smooth with patience, anxious nicks replaced by wistful grooves. She’s absorbed Girl’s pains so completely she delivers them with near stillness. It’s the kind of quietude that makes you want to reel against the backdrop of her stuck-still heart.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Lesser-Roy’s favorite moment from the show is one of its softest.
“I just adore that moment [when she says hello to the piano],” she says. “It encapsulates who Girl is and how she treats everything and everybody around her. She handles everything with such care. And the fact that she says hello to the instrument before she plays it, it’s so weird but also the loveliest thing ever.”
When Lesser-Roy, now 23, left the conservatory, she found a teacher in Girl. Though close in age, Girl possessed something she didn’t: a solidified sense of self.
“College is kind of where you figure out who you are, so I had interrupted that process, and I had to continue growing up on the tour,” says Lesser-Roy, a native of Larchmont, N.Y. “I was playing the part of this person who was grounded and sure of herself and grown up. I was kind of using that to teach myself how to be confident.”
But it was only a loan. As her teens gave way to her 20s, she began to deposit some of her own growth back into the character.
“A lot has happened in my life over the last three years,” Lesser-Roy says. “I feel like I’m bringing a new sense of wisdom to her. I won’t say a lot of wisdom because I know I’m still young, but I feel even more grounded in who I am.”
With steadier footing, Lesser-Roy is learning a bigger lesson from Girl. She sees a single mother, a lonely wife, the daughter of a widow, a put-upon friend. She sees everything Girl is to those who love her, and she is awed.
“Despite all of that, she has this light and joy. She puts everyone before her. She meets this guy off the street, and then she devotes her life for the next week to making his dreams come true and putting his life back together,” she says. “I just don’t think that’s something I come into contact with a whole lot.”
‘I was playing . . . this person who was . . . grown up. I was kind of using that to teach myself how to be confident.’
In the sense that a performer’s first major role is a bit like a first love, Lesser-Roy will never forget Girl. So, she’s choosing to remember her as a role model, hoping a performance helps someone in the crowd put their own life back together.
“That’s my hope, that at least one person sees this show and decides, ‘You know what? I’m not gonna pursue that relationship with that guy because it’s not good for me’ or ‘I’m going to go after this person because I love them’ or ‘I’m going to focus on myself and the people around me that I love.’ I think this show has the capacity to teach people that.”Jenni Todd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @JenniRTodd on Twitter.