Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Jersey Boys
Audiences in Dayton, Ohio, should consider themselves lucky. The thrilling and enchanting national tour of Once on This Island, based on the recent Tony Award winning revival, is being presented at the Schuster Center in just its second stop. The production boasts an excellent cast, unique staging, and creative direction. While this title may not be as well-known as others this season, Dayton theatergoers should consider it a must-see.
Based on the novel "My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl" by Rosa Guy, Once on This Island begins during an impending storm as the adults tell a little girl a Caribbean fairy tale of sorts to calm her nerves. They convey the story of Ti Moune, a poor peasant girl who falls in love with a wealthy boy. Ti Moune is sent on a journey by the gods of her island to test the strength of love in the face of prejudice.
Once on This Island is the product of the writing team of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics), who also wrote the scores for Ragtime, Seussical, and Anastasia). 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 for theatergoers.
The score is likewise accomplished and praiseworthy. Stephen Flaherty's music is highly melodic, aptly delicate, and colorful in its variety and cultural influences. The lyrics by Ms. 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 moving and uplifting.
Once on This Island is a show that's open to creativity in how it's presented. Southwest Ohio audiences just had the opportunity to see a professional production of the musical at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and this mounting couldn't be more different. On Broadway the show played at Circle in The Square Theatre and was presented in the round. The tour modifies the staging somewhat for traditional proscenium theaters, but does include some onstage seating. Director Michael Arden supplies many inventive staging moments and choices, producing whimsical and unique stage pictures. His direction also emphasizes the relationships of the characters and the cost and value of having devoted love for one another.
The choreography by Camille A. Brown is vibrant and culturally well suited, and Steven Cuevas leads a talented band which is situated above the performance space. This production boasts some interesting new vocal and instrumental arrangements, including parts using "found instruments," with original musical supervision by Chris Fenwick.
The national tour includes a number of performers who appeared in the recent Broadway production. The singing by the cast is impeccable, so much so that it's hard to single out anyone specificallythey are all impressive. The four island gods are integral to the story and are wonderfully portrayed by Jahmaul Bakare (a fierce Agwe), American Idol alum Tamara Gray (a menacing and vocally dexterous Papa Ge), Cassondra James (a regal and tender Erzulie), and Kyle Ramar Freeman (a fun and joyous Asaka). Courtnee Carter is an earnest Ti Moune and delivers an extremely potent "Waiting For Life" to set up the desires of her character. Phillip Boykin and Danielle Lee Greaves clearly convey the appropriate love, exasperation, and sacrificial commitment as Ti Moune's adoptive parents. Tyler Hardwick (Daniel) and Briana Brooks (Andrea) capture the more refined mannerisms of the wealthy islanders, and shine in their pivotal moments as well. The remaining cast members do very well in a variety of roles, as well as in using everyday objects on stage to provide musical or percussion accompaniment.
The set design by Diane Laffrey reflects the concept of the story being told in the aftermath of a storm, with a downed telephone pole, torn sheet metal, and tattered sheets mixing with the island sand and water that is also on stage. The onstage seating, a boat, and the back-end of a semi-trailer are also present, leading to a somewhat cramped stage, though still sufficient for the storytelling. Several smaller set pieces and props, such as an iron gate and hanging chandeliers, are also used effectively. The costumes by Clint Ramos fit the dual stories well, with the distinguished, detailed and period outfits for the rich islanders being particularly attractive. The lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer is varied and exquisitely rendered.
Once on This Island isn't a typical musical in many ways, but that's part of what makes it special. The superb score, first-rate cast, and exceptional staging, along with a heartbreaking yet hopeful story, make this a tale worth experiencing.
Once on This Island runs through October 27, 2019, at the Schuster Center, 1 West Second Street, Dayton OH. For tickets and information, call 937-228-3630 or visit victoriatheatre.com. For more information on the tour, visit www.onceonthisisland.com.