BWW Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND Launches Stunning National Tour at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center
Delightful Yet Poignant, Tony Award-Winning Musical Retains All Its Magic
Visually stunning. Inventively staged. Compellingly acted. Beautifully told. Utterly delightful. Heartrendingly poignant. What more can be said about Once On This Island, the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical which launched its national tour in Nashville last night with a remarkable opening performance before a capacity crowd in Andrew Jackson Hall? The critical raves, audience adulation and awards for the recent Broadway revival of the Caribbean-influenced musical were enough to attract ticket-buyers, to be certain, but the sheer artistry of the production and its amazingly talented cast will be more than enough to propel the company forward on their cross-country tour where, we suspect, the accolades will continue to be bestowed upon the heartfelt and authentic story.
Brought to life with vigor and style, Once On This Island is musical theater at its very best, telling a universal story of love, hope and redemption that resonates with audiences no matter if they are siting in a Broadway house or in a darkened auditorium in America's heartland. Based on Rosa Guy's 1985 novel My Love, My Love, the Ahrens and Flaherty musical debuted on Broadway in 1990 to much acclaim, but it is the revival that's remounted for the 2019-20 national tour that is sure to secure the show's place in the canon of American musical theater.
With focused and imaginative direction by Michael Arden, the revival was originally presented in the round and has now been reconfigured for proscenium houses which will provide its home on tour. Arden and his creative team - which include scenic designer Dane Laffrey, costume designer Clint Ramos, lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer and hair/wig and makeup designer Cookie Jordan - retain the immersive feel of the Circle in the Square staging, with sand, water, fire and "found objects" providing an authentically tactile setting for the piece. With onstage seating available, audience members fortunate enough to find themselves amid the action are giving the opportunity to experience a more immersive adventure and to witness the artistry of the ensemble up-close. The production's design aesthetic is exquisitely conceived and ideally crafted with consummate theatricality.
Camille A. Brown's choreography, an energetic blend of African-borne, island-inspired movements and rhythms, significantly elevates the production and allows the story of young Ti Moune and her sometimes tortuous, oftentimes joyful journey through life to be told more expressively, completely thrilling audiences with the movement which so evocatively allow Ti Moune's story to come to life. Conducted by Steven Cuevas (who plays keyboards, melodica and hand percussion), Flaherty's score fills the whole of Jackson Hall to the rafters, played with expertise by his four musicians, which include percussionist Mariana Rameriz-Alvarado, bassist Sherisse Rogers, guitarist Oscar Bautista (who also plays mandolin) and flutist Cassondra James, who also plays the ethereal Erzulie in the dramatization of young Ti Moune's legend that infuses island culture with warmth and heart throughout the less than two hours of captivating storytelling.
Perhaps unlike any musical theater offering you've ever encountered, Once On This Island nevertheless is based in the traditions of the genre, utilizing its strengths in order to bring the story to life in such a way that you'll leave the theater moved by what you've just seen and inspired by the tale you're carry in your heart for the rest of your days. Make no mistake about it, Once On This Island will change the way you view life - if you let it - and will fill your heart with joy. If you are not changed in some visceral manner by show's end, you can only blame yourself, for the artists assembled to bring the show to such vivid life pour their very souls into the project.
The show begins, in fact, as soon as the doors to the theater are opened and audience members begin to move into the performance hall, as cast members mill about the stage, picking up objects and moving things around as their characters assay the damage wrought by a cataclysmic storm the night before the play's action takes place. As audience members take their seats (whether onstage or in the orchestra, tier and balconies), a new day on the island is already under way by the time the ensemble starts to relate the story of Ti Moune to a young girl (played on opening night by the appealing MiMi Crossland) wearing her school uniform. As the storm's devastation from the night before becomes ever more apparent, the young girl's trepidations are allayed as the islanders regale her with the legend of Ti Moune to inspire her (and the audience, as well) to greet life's challenges headlong and hopeful.
Ti Moune (played with heart-stirring intensity and palpable passion by Courtnee Carter) is, herself, an orphan of a storm not unlike the one that has left the island in disarray and as her story unfolds, we learn of efforts, both human and divine, to influence her life as she grows into a young woman. Along the way, we learn of the classism and colorism of island society in the French Antilles, in which darker-skinned people are looked down upon by their lighter-skinned counterparts descended from the French planters who claimed the island for their own in earlier times.
Watched over by a quartet of gods - which include Asaka, mother of the Earth, played with insouciant style and wit by Kyle Ramar Freeman; Agwe, the god of water, heartily portrayed by Jahmaul Bakare; the aforementioned Erzulie, the goddess of love, played by the gorgeous James; and Papa Ge, the demon of death, played by Tamrya Gray with a deft blend of cunning and charm - Ti Moune's attempts to bridge the divide of the classes, with results that are alternately encouraging and full of despair, take her far afield from the loving home of her adoptive parents, played with much empathy and considerable warmth by Danielle Lee Greaves and Phillip Boykin.
When Ti Moune finds an injured Daniel Beauxhomme (Tyler Hardwick is handsome and charming in the way many princely figures are expected to be, yet he ably imbues his character with much heart) in the wreckage after a car crash, she nurses him back from the brink of death and, ultimately, falls in love with him. Eventually journeying to the part of the island where Daniel and others like him reside in opulent splendor (when compared to the privations of the peasants), Ti Moune fits in effortlessly thanks to her undying love for the young man. However, facing the consternation of Daniel's imperious father, she is cast out from the family's mansion, leaving her heartbroken and bereft.
The themes of pain, love, grief, faith and hope reverberate throughout Ahrens' libretto for Once On This Island, with Flaherty's music - filled with the musical flourishes of the island culture - providing an idyllic score for the story.
It would be hard to imagine a cast more appealing, more ideal for Once On This Island than the ensemble brought together under Arden's focused direction. Carter possesses a certain authenticity that ensures Ti Moune is easily accessible to every member of her audience and her performance of "Ti Moune's Dance" is startlingly, hauntingly performed, while Hardwick is perfectly cast as the object of her affections, cutting a dashing figure as Daniel.
James possesses an almost other-worldly beauty that enables Erzulie to move with such grace and power throughout the proceedings. Bakare provides a strong and virile presence as Agwe and Freeman is showstopping in the role of Asaka, delivering the show's signature tune "Mama Will Provide" with a stirring performance that's rewarded with much applause. Gray is small in stature, yet she nonetheless cuts a commanding figure as Papa Ge, whose ultimate evolution suggests that there is something good to be derived from even the most evil of beginnings.
In fact, all the members of Arden's ensemble seem equally well-suited to the challenges and opportunities afforded them in Once Upon This Island. Kudos to Mckynleigh Alden Abraham, Briana Brooks, George L. Brown, Michael Ivan Carrier, Jay Donnell, Alex Joseph Grayson, Phyre Hawkins, Savy Jackson, Tatiana Lofton, Robert Zelaya and Mariama Diop for their contributions to the production's overall success.
Once On This Island. Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Michael Arden. Choreographed by Camille A. Brown. Musical supervision by Chris Fenwick. Presented by Broadway at TPAC at Andrew Jackson Hall, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through Sunday, October 20. For details, go to www.TPAC.org or call (615) 782-4040. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (with no intermission).
Photos by Joan Marcus