ONCE ON THIS ISLAND - Good for the Heart
In the midst of one of the more brutal winters in recent memory, who amongst us isn't dreaming of an Island vacation? Here's a secret - that Island getaway you crave is much closer that you think. It's inside Toronto's Daniels Spectrum theatre, where the heart-warming musical Once On This Island opened Friday night.
Right from the start, Stephen Flaherty's infectious Caribbean-flavoured music gently washes over you like an ocean wave, and the beating of your heart begins to match the calypso rhythms of percussion-filled score. As the opening number of this Tony-nominated musical unfolds (expertly interpreted by musical director Lily Ling) and you take in the warm sandy tones of Michael Gianfrancesco's set and Bonnie Beecher's dreamy lighting, the frigid reality of the polar vortex becomes all but a distant memory.
After working together to present 2012's brilliant Caroline, or Change, Acting Up Stage Company in association with Obsidian Theatre Company have teamed once again to present this rarely seen show. While the former featured sophisticated melodies and structure, Once On This Island opts for an authentic and winning simplicity as it warmly invites us into the slow-paced world of its characters, a God-fearing (make that Gods-fearing) community living off the land of their Caribbean Island home.
The story is easily accessible. As a violent storm rages, this community chooses to come together to calm the fears of its youngest member (an excellent Kaya Joubert Johnson) by telling her the story of Ti Moune, (the radiant Jewelle Blackman) a dark-skinned peasant girl who fell in love with a light-skinned rich young man (a solid Chris Sams) from the other side of the Island. What follows is essentially a 'show within a show' as the community inhabits the various characters of the story they tell.
Director Nigel Shawn Williams is to be commended not only for intelligently moving his multi-talented cast through the three-sided playing space with ease, creating interesting images at pleasing angles that draw in the viewer, but for digging well-below the surface of this Fairy Tale-like story to uncover the pulsing, loving heart that lies beneath. That each member of his cast manages a grounded, emotionally honest performance while inhabiting their many different characters is a credit to him.
This production is a rich tropical tapestry and there are many standout moments, several thanks to the evocative choreography of Marc Kimelman. Blackman and Daren A. Herbert frequently impress with the fluidity, strength and specificity of their movement. It's nearly impossible to highlight individual performances, as this is truly an ensemble piece, but Blackman and Sams share a strong chemistry as believable lovers, while Herbert again stands out with his confident portrayal of Pape Ge, The God of Death.
But for my money, it's Arlene Duncan and Tom Pickett who score the most points as Ti Moune's adoptive parents. American author/educator ElizaBeth Stone once wrote that choosing to have a child is "momentous - it is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body", and after seeing Duncan's riveting performance, I believe Stone's right. Once On This Island is at its most moving when Duncan and Pickett show the depth of their love for their daughter, which brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience on more than one occasion.
It turns out, issues abound under the surface of this vibrant musical - devastation from natural disasters, shadeism, discrimination and sexism - but for me this musical is about the human heart. It's about a community of people who despite being oppressed, say yes to opening their hearts. They make time to connect with each other, to celebrate the life of someone who had "the courage of a dreamer", who chose to love at all costs, even in the face of death. As Alana Hibbert beautifully sang "The Human Heart" I realized that this is what Ahrens and Flaherty may have been after all along - simply to remind us that in this fast-paced world, there is much to be learned from a community who value open, heart-felt face-to-face communication, story-telling, love and support. Who among us wouldn't benefit from more of that in our lives?