Tamyra Gray Reflects on Opening the ONCE ON THIS ISLAND Tour in Nashville This Week
For audience members who saw Once On This Island during its recent Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway, actress Tamyra Gray has some pointers in regard to the show's national tour, which launches tonight at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center: "There's a new set-up," she explains. "Since we are no longer in the round, our set has been restructured and it's really, really cool: It's like you've walked into this village and you're watching events unfold."
Those events start to unfold as soon as the doors to Andrew Jackson Hall open, she says, instantly immersing audiences in the story being told and in the world created by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty in the musical, which is based upon Rosa Guy's 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl. Set in the French Antilles in the Caribbean, Once On This Island focuses on Ti Moune, who succeeds in bringing together people of various social classes together through the enduring power of love and redemption.
The national tour will feature onstage seating for some audience members in order to create "a unique experience within the footprint of every theatre we play...audiences will be invited to put their feet in the sand and surround our company, becoming part of the show," producers promise.
And while live animals, which were such a huge part of the revival, won't likely be included in the tour, "there is still water, fire and sand" to give audiences the same feel of the Broadway production.
Playing Papa Ge - who is described as "the sly Demon of Death who is the main antagonist of the show" - on tour allows Gray to continue in the role she first assayed on Broadway (she succeeded Merle Dandridge in the role) and to thoroughly immerse herself in the character: "I know Pape Ge," Gray surmises.
"I feel as though Papa Ge is a character I've been waiting all my life to play," she says. "Every story has some kind of painful beginning and so I don't play evil just for evil's sake." Instead, she follows the dramatic arc of Papa Ge from his beginnings as "a scary demon that can't find life" [Papa Ge tricks Ti Moune into giving her life for that of another] to the show's conclusion during which Papa Ge is redeemed and Ti Moune's sacrifices earn their ultimate reward.
"By show's end, Ti Moune believes again and has hope," Gray suggests. "It's a great reminder that we're all responsible for the choice we make and it's our responsibility to uplift one another and ourselves and to rebuild in the face of great devastation."
Set on an island in the aftermath of a major storm, Once On This Island tells the story of Ti Moune as a way of guiding the islanders (of whom the audience become a part) through the devastation and recovering what was lost. In the process, the islanders are shown to be resourceful and resilient, utilizing found objects to create beauty, using their imaginations to recover from the devastation that was wrought even before the show begins.
"When you walk in the theatre, the show has already started," Gray explains. "You watch how this community goes about its daily life; everyone's coming out to reevaluate and to see how they'll put their lives back together in the aftermath of the storm."
Going on tour with the production so soon after its Broadway closing (it shuttered last January), will allow the company to tell the story and to introduce it to audiences who haven't had the opportunity to see many theatrical works set in the Caribbean: "It has all this energy to it and it's going to be great to share this with audience," she says. "It's going to be great to witness how people see themselves in the story, to see their problems while given the freedom to find their way through the darkness."
Playing the pivotal role of Papa Ge "challenges you and opens you up," Gray maintains. "You take this emotional roller coaster that you actually get to share with people. It gives voice to so many things that so many people hold on to in secret - like not having the right words to express what they're going through."
As a result, Gray's work in Once On This Island is "very eye-opening: Every single day, I get to rediscover love and hope. It gives me courage - it's life reflected in art."
About Tamyra Gray (Papa Ge) was last seen as part of the all-star cast of Into The Woods at the Hollywood Bowl. She most recently starred on Broadway as Papa Ge in the Tony Award-winning revival of Once on This Island. Onstage, Tamyra made her Broadway debut as the lead in Bombay Dreams, was praised for her starring role on Broadway as Mimi in Rent and played Kate in the first national tour of If/Then. In 2011, she starred in Debbie Allen's Twist at The Pasadena Playhouse for which she won a Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Theatre Award. Following her acclaimed appearance on American Idol, Tamyra appeared on television in Boston Public, Half and Half, All of Us, What I Like About You, Las Vegas and Tru Calling. Big screen credits include the Sony feature The Gospel and Rachel Getting Married. Tamyra has co-written "You Thought Wrong" for Grammy winner Kelly Clarkson and the #1 Billboard Hot 100 single "I Believe" for Fantasia.
About Once On This Island Winner of the 2018 Best Revival of a Musical, Once on This Island will officially open its national tour in Music City with a week-long engagement from October 15-20 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Jackson Hall. Written by the Tony Award-winning team Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), Once on This Island is based on the novel "My Love, My Love" by Rosa Guy. This production features new orchestrations by original orchestrator Michael Starobin, who is joined by AnnMarie Milazzo.
Once on This Island is the sweeping, universal tale of Ti Moune, a fearless peasant girl in search of her place in the world and ready to risk it all for love. Guided by the mighty island gods, Ti Moune sets out on a remarkable journey to reunite with the man who has captured her heart.
This new production is led by two-time Tony Award-nominated director Michael Arden (Spring Awakening revival) and acclaimed choreographer Camille A. Brown (NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar Live). The creative team also includes Dane Laffrey (scenic designer), Clint Ramos (costume designer), Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting designers), Peter Hylenski (sound designer), John Bertles/Bash the Trash (unusual instruments), Cookie Jordan (hair/wig and makeup designer), Chris Fenwick (music supervisor), Alvin Hough, Jr. (music director), David Perlow (associate director), Nikki M. James (assistant director), Rickey Tripp (associate choreographer) and Telsey + Co / Craig Burns, CSA (casting agent).
Once on This Island premiered at Playwrights Horizons in May 1990. The Broadway production opened in October of that year garnering eight Tony nominations including Best Featured Actress (LaChanze), Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical and Best Musical. The 1994 West End production won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. The revival opened in December 2017 at Circle in the Square Theatre and would go on to earn nine Tony nominations winning Best Revival of a Musical. The touring production of the Tony-winning revival was built, developed and launched at The Carson Center in Paducah, Kentucky.
PHOTOS BY Joan Marcus