Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Director Michael Arden has set this production on a Caribbean island right after a hurricane has ravaged it, which ties in to the story of Ti Moune, as she was also the victim of a storm. As the island's inhabitants come together to clean up the island and tell Ti Moune's tale as a way to comfort a frightened young girl, the story and town burst into action with the people becoming characters in the story while using found objects from the hurricane that add to the storytelling aspect.
The young peasant woman Ti Moune was saved by the gods when she was a girl. Now, she prays to them so she can know her purpose in life as she believes she was chosen to live for a reason. Hearing her plea, the Goddess of Love, Erzulie, proposes they give her love, but the Demon of Death, Papa Ge, wagers a bet to see which is stronger, love or death. Along with the God of Water Agwe, and the Mother of the Earth Asaka, they arrange to have her fall in love with Daniel, a wealthy boy from the other side of the island whose family looks down on people like Ti Moune. Will Daniel fall for the poor Ti Moune? What will the four gods do to lead her on her journey? Will love conquer death?
Based on Rosa Guy's 1985 novel "My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl," Once on This Island had its Broadway premiere in 1990. Flaherty's book for the musical is smart and sharp, and the Ahrens and Flaherty score features an abundance of energetic songs, introspective ballads, and soaring love songs. Arden's direction instills the production with a sense of magic, mysticism, and a huge heart, and he effectively weaves in Camille A. Brown's joyous choreography, which incorporates passionate folk dances that burst with energy, so they seem to be a natural part of the storytelling narrative.
The tour cast is exceptional, with several members who appeared in the Broadway revival. As Ti Moune, Courtnee Carter beautifully evokes the longing for adventure, feelings of purity and love, and the huge heart of this naïve young woman who is simply looking for her place and purpose in the world. Tyler Hardwick provides Daniel, the man that Ti Moune falls in love with after saving his life, with a perfect continental accent that immediately identifies him as a young man of wealth and education. The two have lovely singing voices that bring power to their growing yet troubled romance, and Carter's performance of "Ti Moune's Dance," which she begins before members of the cast join in, is a showstopper as it portrays the haunting beauty and powerful passion of Ti Moune and her fellow island residents.
Tamyra Gray, Jahmaul Bakare, Cassondra James, and Kyle Ramar Freeman form a strong yet playful foursome as the gods of the island. This production uses gender-blind casting for two of the gods, Papa Ge and Asaka, and while it works beautifully I do wish it was somehow incorporated better into the storytelling aspect of the production, as if to show us how the island's natives chose certain people to portray the characters in the story, regardless of their sex, because they were deemed to be the best people to play those roles. The power, passion, and witty playfulness Freeman brings to the role of Asaka make his solo, "Mama Will Provide," soar. Cassondra James delivers a beautifully sung "The Human Heart" as the ethereal Erzulie, the God of Love, and Jahmaul Bakare brings strength and substance to the role of Agwe. Tamyra Gray is sly and cunning as Papa Ge. As Ti Moune's adoptive parents, Jay Donnell and Danielle Lee Greaves are warm, caring, and empathetic to Ti Moune's desires.
Arden's focused direction imaginatively incorporates Dane Laffrey's realistic scenic design so that every part of the set, including the sand floor and elements of water, are pulled into the story to expertly transport the audience to an island in the Caribbean. Clint Ramos's costumes and the hair and makeup designs by Cookie Jordan bring the characters in the tale to vibrant life, while lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer provide a range of gorgeous scene imagery through expressive lighting. Music director and conductor Steven Cuevas and the small onstage band create a beautiful, natural sound score that incorporates percussion, guitar and melodica. The fact that the cast also frequently add to the soundscape by playing percussion on various objects adds to the joy and inventiveness of this production.
In Once on This Island, faiths, rituals, beliefs and traditions combine to exquisitely tell this moving yet tragic tale. The national tour is a visually stunning production that uses inventive staging, energetic choreography, and rich creative elements to create an enthralling journey and an immersive theatrical experience of this universal story of love and hope.
Once on This Island runs through March 8, 2020, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.onceonthisisland.com.
Book and Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens