'Once On This Island' Is A Tuneful, Colorful And Moving Marriott Musical
Now playing through August 29, 2010 at the Marriott Theatre in north suburban Lincolnshire is a playful and moving, family-friendly and Afro-Caribbean production of "Once On This Island," the first Broadway musical (1990) from the writing team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Like their best known work, "Ragtime," this show is an adaptation of a novel (in this case, "My Love, My Love," by Rosa Guy), and the event-laden structure is fleshed out by narration.
This time, though, it is a group narrative effort, and the whole piece is structured as an ancient Greek drama would be, harkening back to the origins of theater as storytelling. The raised square platform at the Marriott provided the Greek circle in perfect form. And this production uses a large number of simple props, colorful and imaginative costumes, marvelous dance and a mixture of musical styles to celebrate "The Human Heart," as one of the most memorable melodies puts it. (The props are by Gregory Isaac, costumes by Nancy Missimi, and the music is supervised and conducted by Patti Garwood.)
The men responsible for this particular mounting are director-choreographer David H. Bell and musical director Ryan T. Nelson. For men associated with the usually WASP-associated Northwestern University, the show has a lot of resonant Caribbean and African touches. One hopes that Lake County audiences embrace this show as the wonderful Broadway musical that it is, and aren't scared off by the all-black cast or what they hear about they subject matter. Which, by the way, is racism, and how love and time and fate can triumph over it.
The two races in question are the dark-skinned peasants of the unnamed island, and the mixed-race "Grand Hommes" of the city, who rule with their money and their lighter skin, courtesy of the now-departed French colonialists. Ti Moune, a peasant orphan girl who falls in love with Daniel, the son of the Beauxhomme family, is our heroine. She sings one of the great "I Want" songs of recent Broadway memory, "Waiting for Life." And, in the person of Chasten Harmon, boy, does she sing it!
Harmon, who recently appeared in the Broadway revival of "Hair,"is maybe the most even triple threat performer I have seen in Chicago in some time. And by that, I mean that I don't know which (of acting, singing or dancing) is her strongest suit. She is great at all three, and this role gives her the opportunity to show them off. I mean, how many lead acting roles have a pure dance solo in the "11:00 spot" of the second act? And how many dancers can sing like a Times Square angel, and how many singers can act out the tragedy of unrequited love until the audience's hearts break? I cannot recommend her performance highly enough. Brava, Chasten Harmon!
As Daniel, her Romeo promised to another, up-and-coming young Chicago favorite Brandon Koller is performing the role he was seemingly born to play. Handsome, with a lovely light tenor voice, with the right light serio-comedic touch, he revels in the song "Some Girls" and glows in his light costumes. No wonder this girl risks everything! Melody Betts, another local favorite, is on hand to give the goddess Asaka the earthy touch and stratospheric notes that "Mama Will Provide" requires. I enjoyed the voice and moves of Jesse Means as the deathly god Papa Ge, and stage veterans Joslyn Jones and Michael James Leslie embued Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian with love, warmth and beauty.