Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Based on "My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl," a romantic novel by Trinidad-born writer Rosa Guy, Once on This Island is set on an island in the French Antilles. It draws upon the age-old premise of lovers whose two different worlds make it impossible for them to find peace together, in this case a poor peasant girl, Ti Moune, and the scion of the upper crust, Daniel Beauxhommes. The presence of mythical island gods further gives the story its Caribbean flavor. Erzulie, the god of love, enters into a duel with Papa Ge, god of death, to prove that love is stronger than death, while the gods of rain, Agwe, and of the earth, Asaka, also play a part in the tale.
Using a frame that grounds the show in the present, a hurricane has devastated the island, with Dane Laffrey's stunning stage design casting a fallen tree, an overturned aluminum boat, a rusted semi-trailer with its rear doors blown open, and scattered debris upon a sandy beach, with both real sand and real water on the stage. A small frightened girl is comforted by a group of storytellers who enchant her with the story of Ti Moune, which means "little orphan." Long, long ago after just such a storm, a little girl is found up in a tree by an aging couple, Julian and Euralie. Amazed that this little girl survived the storm, and despite their age, poverty, and fear that they will be going against the will of the gods, they take in their Ti Moune, who brings love and meaning to their life.
Ti Moune grows up to want more from life than Julian and Euralie's small village world, and yearns to know why the gods spared her in the hurricane. Then, Daniel crashes his car in a fierce rainstorm and lies dying outside her village. Ti Moune believes that she has found her purpose: to love Daniel and restore him to health. She will not accept the truth, that Daniel's people, the light-skinned wealthy Beauxhommes, hold poor, dark-skinned peasant girls like Ti Moune in contempt. A long journey enfolds that tests the strength of Ti Moune's love, with the gods alternately observing and intervening. The tale ends with Ti Moune caught between heartbreak and hope.
It is a beautiful bittersweet story told through Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's wondrous score that ranges from ballads to island-tempo dances to waltzes to stirring tribal rhythms, and Ahrens's charming book that uses self-awareness of its storytelling motif to its advantage. It also harbors a problem in Ti Moune as a heroine who faces multiple forms of oppression: she is female, she is dark-skinned, and she is poor. Our sympathies are always with her, and the courage she musters to stand up against prejudice is admirable, but is her narrow focus on a pretty-faced boy who happened to land down the road, and who, frankly, never demonstrates that he is deserving of her devotion, the best use of her courage and passion? Why not have Ti Moune be a force to lead others like her to demand their rights from the oppressive Beauxhommes? We could wish for such a story, but this one isn't it. This one follows a long-established motif, as Mrs. Potts sings in Beauty and the Beast, a "tale as old as time," that, on its own terms, is a beautifully rendered reason to rejoice.
Michael Arden's direction fully integrates the narrative with music and dance, while clarifying the storyline and carefully delineating characters from one another. Camille A. Brown helms her own dance company in addition to creating choreography for theater and opera. She is known for drawing out the narrative of her own African-American ancestry, and makes this vividly alive in Once on This Island, while evoking elements of nature that are so much a part of the island life, and the torrential power of Ti Moune's love, exhibited in an extended dance at the court of the Beauxhommes.
While the casts of most visiting touring companies have uniformly high standards, this cast sets an especially high bar, with every one of the principals and ensemble members worthy of praise. Courtnee Carter is out of this world as Ti Moune, with a gorgeous, full voice, dexterous dancing, and impassioned acting. At the performance I attended, MiMi Crossland had enormous stage presence and a good-sized vocal belt as the little girl who frames the story, as well as the young Ti Moune. (At some performances, Mariama Diop performs that role).
The quartet of gods are all terrific. Tamyra Gray, a Broadway veteran, is a chillingly diabolical Papa Ge, demon of death, her voice howling with menace as she makes a bargain with Ti Moune ("Forever Yours"). Kyle Ramar Freeman delivers flash and warmth as Asaka, mother of the earth, bringing down the house with the jubilant "Mama Will Provide." Cassondra James conveys goddess of love Erzulie's steadfast faith, beautifully describing the strength of "The Human Heart." In a lovely touch, the goddess of love also performs on flute, a musical embellishment to the gifts she bestows on Ti Moune. Jahmaul Bakare brings dynamic strength to his portrayal of Agwe, god of water, as he delivers a pounding "Rain."
Tony award nominee (for a role in Porgy and Bess ) Phillip Boykin has one of the most glorious voices on any stage, and one only wishes we heard more of it in his performance as Tonton Julian, but his brilliant presence is welcome in this production. As Mama Euralie, Danielle Lee Graves adds her own beautiful voice to duets with Boykin ("One Small Girl," "Ti Moune") and conveys the heartfelt pangs of a mother watching her child set forth in a dangerous world. Tyler Hardwick is charming and handsome as Daniel, with a reserve that reveals both his love for Ti Moune and its limitations ("Some Girls"), and Briana Brooks conveys the condescension of the Beauxhommes as Andrea.
Clint Ramos' bright and inventive costumes, Julies Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting design, and Peter Hylenski's sound design all replicate the Broadway production, adding vibrancy to every moment of this staging. The orchestrations for Stephen Flaherty's music are exquisite, making use of a host of sounds, from steel drums to harmonium to kalimba, that bring authenticity and flavor to the show's French Antilles setting, with both African and European roots, with credit to John Bertles and Bash the Trash for the design of "found instruments"something few shows can boast.
Once on This Island has been a popular property for regional, community theater, and school productions. You are likely to have come across it and may wonder if this story, with its slender narrative, bears returning to. I can assure you, this production lifts Once on This Island high above any rendition you have seen before. It brings out the immense heart that is, really, the driving force of this beautiful piece of musical theater.
Once on This Island runs through February 9, 2020, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $117.00 - $39.00; partial view onstage seats, $25.00. Educator and high school/college student rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain, two tickets per valid ID. For tickets and information call 651-224-4222 or visit Ordway.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.onceonthisisland.com.
Book and Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens, based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy; Music: Stephen Flaherty; Director: Michael Arden; Choreography: Camille A Brown; Music Supervisor: Chris Fenwick; Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey Costume Design: Clint Ramos; Lighting Design: Jules Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski, adapted for tour by Shannon Slaton; Hair, Wig and Make-Up Design: Cookie Jordan; "Found" Instruments Design: John Bertles & Bash the Trash; Music Director: Steven Cuevas; Orchestrations: AnnMarie Milazzo & Michael Starobin; Original Vocal Arrangements: Stephen Flaherty; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Casting: Telsey + Company, Craig Burns, CSA; Associate Director: Justin Scribner; Associate Choreographer: Rickey Tripp; Production Stage Manager: Kelsey Tippins; Executive Producer: Trinity Wheeler.
Cast: McKynleigh Alden Abraham (Storyteller), Jahmaul Bakare (Agwe), Phillip Boykin (Tonton Julian), Briana Brooks (Andrea/Storyteller), George L. Brown (Armand/Storyteller), Michael Ivan Carrier (Beauxhomme/Storyteller), Courtnee Carter (Ti Moune), MiMi Crossland * (Little Girl), Mariama Diop * (Little Girl), Jay Donnell (Storyteller), Kyle Ramar Freeman (Asaka), Tamyra Gray (Papa Ge), Alex Joseph Grayson ("Beauxhommes" Narrator/Storyteller), Danielle Lee Greaves (Mama Euralie), Tyler Hardwick (Daniel), Phyre Hawkins ("Beauxhommes" Narrator/Storyteller), Savy Jackson (Storyteller), Cassondra James (Erzulie), Tatiana Lofton (Storyteller), Robert Zelaya (Storyteller).