BWW Reviews: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Olney Theatre Center is Just Plain Exceptional
All right, I have to admit I'm a card-carrying member of the Ahrens/Flaherty Admiration Club or AFAC for short. I just love their work. And it all began right here at the Olney Theatre Center in 1989 when I first saw their musical LUCKY STIFF with Evan Pappas. I was hooked. Since then I've seen their THE GLORIOUS ONES, DESSA ROSE, A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, MY FAVORITE YEAR, RAGTIME, and the original Broadway production of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND with LaChanze and Jerry Dixon (who are both together again on Broadway in the musical IF/THEN).
I LOVE this show. It's an intermission less ninety minutes and it flies by. The calypso infused music (I'm listening to it as I write) is just plain wonderful.
I have to compliment Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith for bringing in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND as part of Olney's 2014 Family Series which appeals to young families and their children and early starting times (1:30 for matinees and 7:30 for evening performances. What a great way to introduce the younger sets to great theater.
If you've ever watched "Sesame Street" during the last 16 years you'd recognize the Director, Alan Muraoka. He plays Alan, the proprietor of Hooper's Store. And what a Director he is. He has done a masterful job with this production and amazing cast.
The show has a different take than I've seen. The set depicts the aftermath of the disaster in Haiti with a Red Cross shelter with cots and boxes everywhere. After the sound of rain and thunder, the actors transform themselves into their characters about the saga of a young girl named Ti Moune played in this performance but the astounding Ariel Cunningham. Little Ti Moune soon morphs into an adult played by the amazing Aisha Jackson. What a voice she has. The peasant orphaned girl Ti Moune saves a wealthy young man Daniel who was injured in a car crash and the musical follows Ti Moune in her attempts to crash the barriers of class.
On Broadway, the theme of the musical dealt with the discrimination between light-skinned Blacks and dark-skinned Blacks. Here, Director Muraoka makes it more a class issue between the haves and the have-nots. It works.
The musical is told via the use of various "gods": "Asaka", Mother of the Earth played by Theresa Cunningham, the sensual "Erzulie" Goddess of Love, the sexy Fahnlohnee Harris-Tate, the evil "Papa Ge", Demon of Death, the scary James T. Lane and "Agwe", the God of Water played by Nicholas Ward.
The cast is strong throughout. Eymard Cabling plays the wealthy Daniel, Kellee Knighten Hough his fiancé Andrea and Madame Armand, Stephen Scott Wormley as Armand, and Duyen Washington as Mama Euralie.
The wonderful orchestra is conducted by Darius Smith (also on piano) and his musicians help make the evening so enjoyable. After it was over, I was ready to see it again immediately.
Darren Lee's Caribbean choreography is spot on and the clever costumes are by Helen Huang.
Thankfully, Olney has a tradition of selling CD's of shows and you can pick up the OBC for only $15.
They also have talk-backs after the Saturday matinees on April 26 and May 3.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND continues until May 4. Take the kids and have a ball.