Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Once on This Island is based on the novel "My Love, My Love: or The Peasant Girl" by Rosa Guy. The story begins during a severe storm, as adults tell a little girl a Caribbean fairy tale of sorts to calm her nerves. They tell the story of Ti Moune, a poor peasant girl who falls in love with a wealthy boy. She is sent on a journey by the gods of her island to test the strength of love in the face of prejudice.
The writing team of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) should be particularly proud of their achievements with Once on This Island. Although (sometimes with other writers) they created the epic Ragtime, the cash cow Seussical, and the film and now stage musical of Anastasia, which Cincinnati audiences can see later this season on tour, Once on This Island was their first Broadway show and is a delight. The book 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, while "Mama Will Provide," is a wonderfully rousing fantasy number. The opening pieces, "We Dance" and "One Small Girl," set the story in motion using narrative songs, and the closing "A Part of Us" and "Why We Tell The Story" are individually moving and uplifting.
Once on This Island is very open to creativity in how it is presented. Director/choreographer Robert Barry Fleming has set this mounting during a massive hurricane (not just a storm), with the cast hunkered down in a shelter. (The recent revival set the action on an island during the cleanup following a big storm.) With cots covered by Red Cross blankets filling a large portion of the performance space, Fleming surprisingly and skillfully tells the story without altering the set design. The cots are not moved aside, nor are new design elements brought in (except for a few small props based on items that would be present in the shelter anyway). This approach requires more imagination from the audience, but Fleming's staging provides very clear storytelling throughout. He employs a much smaller cast than normal for this show, with many of the key characters also providing narration typically taken by ensemble members. Fleming's dances are often unison in-place moves, restricted a bit by the lack of open stage space, but they are culturally apt and interesting. Andrew Smithson leads a great sounding six-piece band who provide a slightly slower pace to a few numbers, thus allowing for clear communication of lyrics important for understanding the story.
The talented cast members turn in extremely worthwhile performances. Lauren Chanel is a spunky and determined Ti Moune. The four gods are portrayed with finely tuned and detailed characterizations by Allan K. Washington (a playful yet forceful Agwe), Bre Jackson (a fun and motherly Asaka), Christina Acosta Robinson (a tender yet wise Erzulie), and Sharon Catherine Brown (an intense Papa Ge). Rheaume Crenshaw and Kenneth Robinson convincingly convey the appropriate love, exasperation, and sacrificial commitment of Ti Moune's adoptive parents. Colin Carswell (Daniel) and Alexis Louise Young (Andrea) capture the more refined mannerisms of the wealthy islanders, and shine in their pivotal moments as well. In smaller supporting or ensemble roles, Ken Early, Christina Booker, Alfie Dale Jones, Jr., Asada Austin, and Morgan O. Reynolds each turn in meaningful performances. The entire cast is vocally strong, both in individual and group singing.
The set design by Jason Ardizzone-West depicts the inside of a somewhat dilapidated community building, with concrete block walls serving as a makeshift hurricane shelter. There are some interesting features, though the reason isn't quite clear for the presence of scaffolding on stage, even though it is used suitably. A special effect used near the end of the show, while being impressive and conceptually strong, is somewhat distracting from the central story and an example of "just because you can do something doesn't mean you should." Saying more would be a spoiler. The costumes by Lex Liang could provide more clarity to the story, but actors using one costume for both roles (that of the shelter guests and the folk-tale characters) limits the specificity of each. Also, the clothing for the gods, which are supposed to be make-shift from the available shelter items, are hit and miss. Alan Edwards does an expert job in showcasing who is singing using spot lights, and employs other lighting quite effectively to emphasize emotional moments and characterizations.
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's production of Once on This Island is a strong one, with sure-handed direction and an abundance of first-rate performances which showcase the strengths of the story and songs.
Once on This Island runs through October 6, 2019, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mt Adams Circle, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-421-3888 or visit www.cincyplay.com.