BWW Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Hershey Theatre
Once on this Island is a beautiful and heart-wrenching story of love, loss, belief, and sacrifice. With music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Once on this Island won the 1995 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical. Director Michael Arden describes their process of working on the revival, explaining, "Once On This Island is the story of how one seemingly insignificant girl becomes myth and legend for survivors of a wounded and healing island and how the good we do can echo and reverberate long after our lives are over." As part of the North America tour, Once on this Island is playing at Hershey Theatre through December 8th.
The first thing that audiences will notice is the set. The set (which includes real sand) is well-designed to transport audiences to an island where communities are threatened not only by the storms that beset the island but also by deep-seated class divisions. The lighting serves to heighten the emotion of every moment of the story. One of my favorite parts of this production, is the costuming and how costume changes help the audience recognize when actors are playing the role of storyteller and when they are actually taking a role as characters within the story. The musicians, who are on stage with the actors, become a part of the story as well; it is particularly fun to see some of the actors playing instruments at various times throughout the performance.
As the audience enters, the actors are already on stage, in character, representing a community trying to rebuild after a devastating storm. Suddenly, they begin the process of showing one another and the audience who they are, what makes them strong, and where they come from. As the story of Ti Moune unfolds, the audience is taken on a journey. The voices on stage are beautiful, creating soaring melodies and tight harmonies that make it impossible not to become emotionally invested in the story. During the performance I saw, there were unfortunately times when diction was not the best, and, with the added complication of an island accent, it was difficult to understand the words from a couple of the soloists and occasionally when the whole ensemble was singing together. But the voices themselves and the superb acting help to keep the audience engaged even when the lyrics aren't completely understood.
The overall impact of the show is emotionally overwhelming-in a positive way, as every actor on stage commits completely to their roles. These are a few of the many highlights:
Philip Boykin and Danielle Lee Greaves, as Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie, offer standout performances. Not only are their voices flawless, but the emotion that they exude is captivating and authentic. When Mama Euralie fears for Tonton's life, everyone in the audience can feel the anguish and terror, and when they sing the song "Ti Moune" it is impossible not to see and hear the love they have for Ti Moune. I would see this show again simply to experience their performances again.
Courtnee Carter has the perfect spirit for the role of Ti Moune. She is playful and hopeful as she interacts with her community while longing to find her purpose in life. As her journey continues, she shows us that she is also fierce and strong-willed, even when life seems to take everything from her. Tyler Hardwick portrays Ti Moune's love, Daniel. Hardwick has a lovely, clear tenor voice that blends beautifully with Carter's voice in the song "Forever Yours". Carter and Hardwick have terrific chemistry on stage.
One of the most interest characters in the show is Papa Ge, demon of death. Reminding us of the balance between life and death and the inevitability of both, Papa Ge is simultaneously terrifying and fascinating. The role of Papa Ge is taken on by Tamyra Gray. She handles the physicality of the role wonderfully and, even as her speaking voice is carefully altered to provoke feelings of fear and awe, her singing voice is gorgeous and shows off an amazingly wide vocal range.
Another aspect of the show that cannot be ignored is the movement and dancing. Camille A. Brown's choreography seems to flow seamlessly from the story itself. The actors throw themselves whole-heartedly into the movement, creating a visually stunning experience.
Once on this Island is much more than a love story-it is a tale of how our lives become part of one another's stories. Don't miss out on a chance to get swept away by the story. For more information and to order tickets, visit https://www.hersheyentertainment.com/hershey-theatre/events/once-on-this-island
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus