Ariela Morgenstern (Photo/David R. Gordon)
Ariela Morgenstern (Photo/David R. Gordon)

For S.F. cantor’s daughter, role in ‘Once’ is a natural fit

Ariela Morgenstern has the acting and singing chops for her role in a new San Francisco production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Once” — but that’s not all. She’s also prepared to play a couple of instruments, as required for her role.

“I play Baruška, a no-nonsense Czech mother, and I will be making my onstage accordion and ukulele debuts,” says Morgenstern, laughing. “This is the first time I’ve [played] an instrument on stage since I was 13, at a piano recital. It’s been a big journey, very humbling — and I love it. It’s really a dream role.”

Morgenstern is a San Francisco native who moved back home from New York three years ago. An actor, singer, voice teacher and presentation coach, she is the daughter of Inara Morgenstern, a piano teacher and accompanist, and the late David Morgenstern, who was a longtime cantorial soloist for Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco.

The 42nd Street Moon production of “Once,” which opened at the Gateway Theatre on June 12 and is running through June 30, marks the regional debut for the show. Based on the romantic 2007 movie of the same name, the modern-day musical opened on Broadway in 2012. “Once” received 11 Tony Award nominations and won eight, including best musical, best actor and best book.

The New York Times described “Once” as “a love affair with music.” Morgenstern puts it this way: “The show is a love story on many levels, but it’s also a show about the immigrant story and about where home is. The other theme that speaks to me is that a lot of the characters have to make choices, decide whether to follow their passion or their loyalty.”

In addition to learning to play the ukulele and increasing her skills on the accordion — ”I own one and I can handle it, but I had to practice my tuchus off for the audition” — Morgenstern said she also is learning with her husband, Marc Wilson, how to parent a toddler. “It is exhausting and insane and a complete change of life, but every day has a new kind of magical joy to it,” she says.

Morgenstern has nothing but praise for her fellow “Once” cast members. “It’s unbelievable how quickly we jelled as a cast, but also in terms of music and friendship. We are a true ensemble,” she says. “I have performed all over the country, but Bay Area actors are a special breed — wholly unpretentious, down to earth, talented and all about support and collaboration. Also, several of our creative team are women — the director, the musical director, and the stage manager — and I love that.”

Morgenstern has appeared in the musical “Adding Machine” off Broadway, “Symphony of Psalms” at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, “A Walk On The Moon” at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, the national tour of “Flashdance the Musical,” the mental illness rock musical “Next to Normal” in Baltimore, and the musical “The Light in the Piazza” in both Washington, D.C., and at Theatreworks in Mountain View.

In addition to performing, Morgenstern teaches acting classes for singers at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and leadership communications classes at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.

What’s next?

“I’ll play Mama Rose in ‘Gypsy’ with [the theater company] Bay Area Musicals this fall,” she says. “Also, I’m learning the High Holiday liturgy so I can help lead services at Beth Israel Judea, where I’d like to step into more of a leadership role.”


June 12 through June 30 at Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F. $28-$75.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.