BWW Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND Delivers a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience at AT&T Performing Arts Center
It is a rare work of theatre that is as concerned with the act of storytelling as it is with the story itself. Recent examples might include PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, which conjures up the myth of Peter Pan in childlike wonder with minimal sets and costumes, and FUN HOME, whose non-linear plot illustrates the ways in which we recreate a narrative from fragmented memories. dThe recent revival production of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND (OOTI), though, goes a step further than these other musicals, exploring how storytelling is an expression of community, a form of mourning and healing, an act of passionate activism.
Through a combination of brilliantly creative stagecraft and psychologically complex characterizations, the current touring production of the Once On This Island revival immerses audiences in an experience unlike any other, one in which the power of a story creates a new world from every possible human emotion right before our eyes. The musical runs through December 22 at the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center.
A simple plot summary of OOTI seems inadequate given the nature of the show, but the story is one that-having been adapted and retold across various cultures and generations-with which many audiences will already be familiar. As a storm bears down on a small island in the Caribbean, a village comforts a little girl with the legend of Ti Moune, a dark-skinned peasant girl who rescues and falls in love with a light-skinned aristocrat named Daniel. Although society dictates the two can never be together, Ti Moune sets off on a quest to find Daniel again and express her feelings for him, assisted by the gods of the earth, seas, love, and death. Some have likened the musical's plot to that of THE LITTLE MERMAID, but this comparison fails to fully grasp how exquisitely this Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty piece explores issues of race, class, colonization, sexuality, and spirituality.
The revival production, which opened in 2017 at Circle in the Square Theatre, was originally produced in the round, surrounding the set's sandy, debris-strewn beach with audience members on all sides. Many friends I've spoken with who saw the revival are concerned that a larger proscenium space cannot capture the magic of the original staging, but I hope this review reassures them that such fears are unwarranted. Director Michael Arden has managed to keep the intimacy of the original staging (some lucky audience members can purchase onstage seats, giving them a somewhat "in the round" experience) while directing as much of the action as possible out to the house in a way that never alienates the audience members around them. It helps that this is likely one of the most exuberantly energetic ensembles currently touring, and passion for the story they're telling is so strong that even viewers in the very back rows are likely to hear every emotional note and see every graceful movement.
As Ti Moune, Courtnee Carter moves with an innocent gaiety that immediately captivates with its seemingly tireless energy. She also manages to achieve what many ingenue actresses fail to do with similar roles; Carter's Ti Moune displays a mature understanding of the responsibilities that come with love, and her conviction makes the character's attraction to Daniel read as much more than superficial love at first sight. Carter's voice is every bit as dynamic as her characterization, soaring expertly from softly whispered declarations of love such as in "Forever Yours" to defiantly belted assertions of individuality in "Waiting for Life." She also holds her own during a thrilling dance sequence once she is welcomed into Daniel's house, not so much performing choreography as embodying the syncopated rhythms that surround her-a performance that left audiences cheering before the routine had even concluded. At the same time that she largely leads the show, Carter understands how to blend with her fellow performers, emphasizing that a community is necessary to tell any one person's story.
Like the gods of ancient Greek myths, the deities of OOTI have personalities as distinct and complex as the mortals they oversee, and each of the performers in these roles makes their respective god deeply human. As the sea god Agwe, Jahmaul Bakare physically and vocally embodies the power of the ocean, striding over rocks and wrecked boats with confident authority, his voice bellowing like the winds as he conjures the storm that allows Ti Moune and Daniel to meet. Cassondra James, as the love goddess Erzulie, acts as a nice foil for Bakare as she gracefully and elegantly moves over the sand, a soothing presence in a musical filled with fraught emotions. James's vocals similarly convey a sense of peaceful comfort; her solo "The Human Heart" garnered some of the most enthusiastic applause of the evening, and her confrontations with Papa Ge were some of the most thematically thrilling moments of the story.
The two remaining gods, in keeping with the creative decisions of the revival, are cast in such a way that ignores traditional gendered casting conventions-a choice that delights audiences while also complicating some of the musical's sexual dynamics. As the earth goddess Asaka, Kyle Ramar Freeman gives a performance that is every bit as life-giving as the soil itself. His sassy delivery of Asaka's quips (some of which are slyly delivered to the viewers onstage) and his sincere warmth make his character an instant favorite for audiences. Freeman also hits Asaka's highest of notes with the greatest of ease, giving an impressively boisterous rendition of one of the musical's most iconic numbers "Mama Will Provide." Reviving her role from the Broadway revival, Tamyra Gray plays the death god Papa Ge with a venom that is both disturbing and intoxicating. Gray manages to make her voice sound as though it's running over gravel as she slinks through the shadows, though the notes in her songs ring as loudly and clearly as a funeral bell. Casting Gray in the role also brings even further intrigue to the musical's relationships, adding an element of lustful competition between Papa Ge and Ti Moune as they bargain for Daniel's life after he is caught in Agwe's storm. All of the gods are incredibly captivating in their own ways, but my eyes kept being drawn to Papa Ge as the character watched over the story unfolding onstage. Perhaps because one never quite knew what havoc the character was going to wreak next.
As previously mentioned, the entire ensemble works well together to tell this beautiful story, fitting together so perfectly in synchronicity that the cohesion can be easy to take for granted. A few performances stand out as being particularly memorable, though. As Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie, Ti Moune's parents who adopt her after she is orphaned as a child, Phillip Boykin and Danielle Lee Greaves bring much-needed humor after the show's opening tragedy, and they expertly convey the love and pain that comes from being a parent forced to let their child make her own decisions. Although the script doesn't paint Daniel as an overly complex character, Tyler Hardwick works diligently-and succeeds-at portraying the character's internal conflict, his loyalties divided between his class and his heart. On opening night at the Winspear, Mimi Crossland pulled double-duty as both the little girl who is the subject of the villagers' attention at the beginning of the show and the young version of Ti Moune who is found clinging to a tree after a storm. Crossland sings and smiles so sweetly and with such youthful joy that it is no surprise the town rallies around her in her time of need.
There is little to critique about this production, save for one issue that seems to plague many touring productions performing in a new space for the first time. For the first 10-15 minutes, it was occasionally difficult to make out the lyrics to some songs, a fairly significant problem if-like me-you are only passingly familiar with the plot to begin with. There were also a couple of moments when microphones were cued a bit late, cutting off the first half of some characters' lines. By and large, though, these issues were remedied by the time the main action of the show was underway, and the remainder of the score was as crisp and clear as a crashing ocean wave.
In terms of the production's other creative elements, the show is a monument to the imagination. Dane Laffrey's set is deceptively innocuous at first, a beach covered in debris such as crates and a splintered electrical tower with the trailer of an eighteen-wheeler perched precariously over one end of the stage. As the musical progresses, though, all of these elements shift and coalesce to create beauty from chaos, bringing the island to life with the help of one people's boundless ingenuity. Clint Ramos's costume design functions in a similar manner, with mosquito nets transforming into Erzulie's silken gown and a multitude of trash bags tied together to form Agwe's tangled beard. Camille A. Brown's choreography embodies the spirit of the island residents while fully embracing the possibilities of the playing space, with leaps and kicks sending water and sand flying in hazy arcs that add as much to the atmosphere as any other physical element.
As much as this review has attempted to capture some of the beauty and magic of Once On This Island in words alone, it fails to fully convey how all these elements work together to tell a story that truly must be experienced to be fully understood. Dallas residents would be wise to gather round the fire and listen to this moving tale before the storm passes through.