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Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Shea's 710 Theatre

Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Shea's 710 Theatre

A Brilliant Debut Production

Shea's 710 Theatre was reborn last night as it solely produced it's first ever musical on the former Studio Arena Stage. An embarrassment of riches assembled onstage as some of Buffalo's own brightest talent mixed with some out of town pros presented a rousing production of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND.

On an island known as the Jewel of the Antilles, the gods rule over everyone, from the poor natives on one side to the privileged rich French on the other. The two groups know their place and interactions are few and far between. But the water God Agwe whips up a storm that leaves a local girl, Ti Moune, high up in a tree. Her rescue by locals signals her to find a higher meaning for her existence. When she revives a Frenchmen Daniel Beauxhomme after a terrible car crash, she is convinced she was destined to nurse him to health and become his wife. The story of class struggle seems timeless, and resonates even deeper today in Buffalo where class distinctions, race relations and social inequalities are felt on a daily basis in 2022.

Director and choreographer Naila Ansari has fashioned a cohesive production thoroughly rooted in African and Caribbean dance. The fluidity of the movements she has created is intoxicating as each cast member seems to have their own unique style and rhythm that ultimately adds up to a cohesive finished product. Phylicia Dove of Black Monarchy LLC has provided simply stunning costumes, full of bold colors, striking patterns and some knock out head dresses. When the full ensemble joins together, the on stage energy is palpable, whether it be joyous or somber.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is firmly rooted in the art of story telling that provides the framework for the book of this musical. The island customs are steeped in respect to the gods, symbolism and rebirth. This tale magnifies the methods of story telling, sometimes in song, often in evocative dancing, and even with some creative elements like using sign language to add to this multi-modal narrative.

Music Director, Buffalo's own Karen Saxon, led a taut pit ensemble, all the while providing crisp musical guidance to the very talented cast. No voice was out of place or weak, sometimes booming to the rafters and at others intimate . Kudos to Nick Quinn for his great sound design, with some mild added effects that heightened the drama.

Zhanna Reed is captivating as the protagonist Ti Moune. From her first entrance, she has a magnetic presence and physical beauty that enthralls. Her bleached short hair, tall stature and smooth as silk singing voice made her a stand out. But when she danced, she took the role to a higher plane. Her moves were lithe and organic.

George L.Brown plays TonTon, her adopted father, with a big voice and imposing presence. Danielle Green has a lovely motherly quality as Mama Eulalie, singing with a strong yet plaintive voice.

Latosha Jennings gets one of the big show stoppers, "Mama Will Provide." She did not disappoint as the Earth Mother Asaka, riffing and beaming in this high energy number.

Rafael Rodriguez did fine work as the injured Daniel. While sometimes aloof, he melted to Ti Moune's touch. His love song, "Some Girls" was entrancing and heartbreaking in it's honesty. If only the two didn't have to fall in love in a cramped twin bed!

Darrick Penny was perfectly cast as the wicked God Papa Ge. From the outset he oozes evil, always a threat to whomever he comes upon. His voice cut like a knife with gripping effect. Anita Frasier as Erzulie the love Goddess sang one of the hits from the show "The Human Heart" with an effortless voice that exemplified all the goodness that Papa Ge lacked.

The two child performers played by Shylah and Samyah Douglas were charming and added to the wisdom of storytelling from elders to the young islanders.

The ensemble sang with a harmonious sound that often provided back up to flesh out the mood of a scene. The score by the pair Stephen Flaherty and lyrics of Lynn Ahrens, best known for their Broadway score to RAGTIME and the film ANASTASIA, is full of island rhythms and heavy on percussion . It easily transports us to the Caribbean from the first downbeat.

The simple set design of palm trees and rocks allowed the large back scrim to be vividly lit by Lighting Designer Aja Jackson.

The newly renovated auditorium looked and felt comfortable as the appreciative audience gathered. This hit 1990 musical has received a thoughtfully conceived production that is sure to delight audiences young and old. It's non traditional score and brilliant cast make this a highlight of a season that has only just begun.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND plays at Shea's 710 Theatre through October 2, 2022. Contact for more

From This Author - Michael Rabice

Michael Rabice has over  40 years of experience attending plays, musicals and opera all over the world. He is a frequent performer in opera and has appeared with the Glimmerglass Opera, A... (read more about this author)

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