Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Once on This Island
Sometimes, as with recent performances of Once on This Island, currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, COVID doesn't kill a performance, but merely wounds it. Because of breakthrough cases, OSF decided that, rather than cancelling performances of the Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens musical, they would present the show in a concert version, which is how I experienced it on my recent trip to the Festival.
Fortunately, even without costumes, choreography, entrances, exits, lighting cues, etc., the magic of Flaherty's music filled the Angus Bowmer Theatre, thanks to a passionate, skilled cast. As with most concert versions, all members of the cast were on stage, seated in an arc, music stands in front of them. When each was about to sing, they would stand, raise their music stands and begin, sometimes dancing in place.
Once on This Island tells the story of Ti Moune (Ciera Dawn), a girl who appeared, Moses-like, after a storm lashed her island and she was saved by four of the local gods–Papa Ge (Chuckie Benson), Asaka (Hannah Rose Honore and Patricia Jewell standing in for Phyre Hawkins), Erzulie (Camille Robinson) and Agwe (Galen J. Williams)–who placed the baby Ti Moune high in a tree, above the flood waters. The island has a rigid class structure: at one end are the "black as night" peasants who labor for pennies and live in shanty towns; at the other end are the grand hommes, the lighter-skinned descendants of the original French planters and their slaves.
Ti Moune (played as a young girl by the adorable and charming Ayvah Johnson) is adopted by a pair of peasants, Mama Euralie (Patricia Jewel) and Tonton Julian (J.D. Webster). As Ti Moune matures, she muses on what her purpose in life might be. She prays to the gods for guidance, and in a rather cruel (but very god-like) turn, Erzulie, god of love, and Papa Ge, god of death, decide to use Ti Moune as a test of which is stronger, love or death.
During another storm the gods send to the island, Daniel (Dominique Lawson), son of a rich grand homme, is driving near Ti Moune's home, and crashes his car. Ti Moune finds him and attempts to nurse him back to health. When Papa Ge comes to claim the boy's life, Ti Moune offers her life in exchange for his. But he won't collect on the debt–yet. Soon, Daniel's family comes to retrieve him.
Hopelessly in love, Ti Moune decides to journey across the island to be by Daniel's side. As you can imagine, his rich relations aren't thrilled to see the peasant girl who wants to steal their boy away.
Despite a rather unhappy (though touching) ending, Once on This Island is suffused with enough joyous music and delightful performances that I predict you'll still leave the theater with a smile on your face.
Once on This Island runs through October 30, 2022, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, 20 E Main St., Ashland OR. Ticket are $35-$75. For more information and tickets, please visit www.osfashland.org.