'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. 

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Paul W. Thompson Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to BroadwayWorld.com since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a “thin, winsome lad” at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paul’s memberships include Actors’ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New York’s Drama League.

Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include “Forever Plaid” at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicago’s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, “The Showtune Mosh Pit.” His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since “Cats.” No, really. Since “Cats!”

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