Not every musical has the power to entertain, move, teach, enrich and challenge an audience all at the same time. Once On This Island, the 1990 Broadway tuner by the team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, is able to achieve all of these and more. The Northern Kentucky University (NKU) Department of Theatre & Dance is currently presenting a thoroughly delightful and ingenious production of this gem of a show.
Once On This Island is based on the novel "My Love, My Love" by Rosa Guy. It tells the story of Ti Moune, a poor peasant girl who longs for love. She is sent on a journey by the gods of her people to test the strength of love in the face of prejudice as she falls for a wealthy islander named Daniel. Though Ragtime may be their masterpiece and Seussical their cash cow of a show, the writing team of Flaherty and Ahrens should be proud of their achievements with Once On This Island. The book by Ms. Ahrens incorporates a rich tapestry of storytelling and theatrical devices in conveying this stylized folk tale. With socially significant issues, endearing yet well-rounded characters, and universal themes such as acceptance, love, sacrifice and family, Once On This Island is both challenging and accessible to theatergoers.
The score is likewise solid and accomplished. Stephen Flaherty's music is highly melodic, aptly delicate, and colorful in its variety and cultural influences. The lyrics by Lynn Ahrens are simple and straightforward, yet poetic and appropriately precise in their content. Ballads such as "The Human Heart" and "Some Girls" are touching, and the act two opening, "Mama Will Provide," is a wonderfully rousing fantasy number. The opening pieces, "We Dance" and "One Small Girl," set the story in motion using narration songs, and the closing "A Part of Us" and "Why We Tell The Story" are individually moving and uplifting.
The talented cast members give extremely worthwhile performances and display amazing dedication and commitment to their roles. Though she struggles a bit with the top vocal range of "Waiting For Life", Tina Diaz is a likeable Ti Moune, and provides a solid interpretation of the role. The four gods are portrayed with finely tuned and detailed characterizations by Thomas McGovern IV (a regal Agwe), Kaitlyn Marie Peace (an earthy Asaka), Heather Roush (a compassionate Erzulie) and Nik Alexzander (an intense Papa Ge). Other praiseworthy performances include Andrew Maloney (Tonton Julian), S. Elizabeth Carroll (Mama Euralie), Brad Frost (Daniel), and Laura Wacksman (Little Girl).
An extremely positive asset of this production is the sure-handed, suitable and creative direction by Daryl Harris. The organic approach to his staging is a perfect fit for the material, and the use of dance and props to represent items such as a car, rain, waves and trees is effective. The active and beautiful choreography by Jane Green and guest artist Ruby Streate is culturally authentic and integral to the overall concept and approach for this production. Eric Baumgartner leads a very talented and lively five-piece orchestra.
The simplistic yet attractive set design by Ron Shaw uses NKU's theater-in-the-round black box space well. In the four corners of the theater are raised platforms made of natural materials that are home to each of the four gods. Other earthy elements such as the moon and fire add to the environmental setting. The costumes by Emily Dunn distinguish the peasants from the rich Grand Homme, and employ a nice color palate. Lighting by Andrew Hungerford adds to the atmosphere of the ecological setting of the show.
Northern Kentucky University's production of Once On This Island is a splendid fit of material to creative staff. Wonderfully suited direction, choreography and design provide the foundation for a solid cast of student performers and a successfully entertaining theater experience. Once On This Island continues at NKU through November 9, 2008. Tickets may be ordered by calling (859) 572-5464.