BWW Review: Theater West End Goes All Out for ONCE ON THIS ISLAND with an In-House Beach and Crazy-Talented Cast
Theater West End is already a little like an island - a tiny paradise of independent, startup theatre on the distant outskirts of Central Florida - but for their second season kickoff, they've built an actual beach.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND comes to life with mounds of sand, full-fledged shacks, an overturned boat that doubles as a platform, a wood-planked bridge, and a running stream of water that curls around the stage in a rock-lined canal.
Let me repeat: they built a river that flows through the theatre.
It's the most impressive set I've seen here, and that's saying something. At one point, rain falls down from the ceiling all around the stage, as if to replenish the river as it evaporates under Derek Critzer and Jonathan Scaringella's lively light design.
Set designer Cliff Price has clearly taken his cue from the show's recent revival on Broadway, where director Michael Arden took the title literally, staging the show as a sandy "island-in-the-round." That production is now on a national tour (skipping Orlando in favor of Tampa) but reconfigured for traditional proscenium settings - round-less.
Given that, one might argue that Theater West End, with its intimate thrust stage putting the audience on the island's shore in a sort of "half-round," gets audiences closer to Arden's Tony-winning island atmosphere than any of the massive performing arts centers will manage. And the talent here feels worthy of a national tour all its own.
Following in the footsteps of last season's opener, The Color Purple, Theater West End launches its sophomore year with a supergroup ensemble cast, a stunning tempest of talent.
Brandi Campbell has come to Florida from North Carolina to play the part of our heroine. I don't know who bought the plane ticket but it was money well spent. In this, her second professional theatre contract, she leads the show with sunny likeability, strength of personality, and soaring vocals. I wouldn't be surprised if she voices a Disney princess on the big screen someday... appropriate, given that ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is fundamentally a retelling of The Little Mermaid (Andersen's, not Disney's).
Check out this clip of Campbell singing a song from ONCE ON THIS ISLAND - from her website, not the Theater West End production - to get a taste of her talent and what she brings to the show.
Kellie Rhianne, whose Shug Avery was a highlight in The Color Purple here, is delectably devious as the menacing Papa Ge. She's clearly having a blast in the role and it electrifies her every scene. It's an Ursula-esque turn, and it left me thinking that Rhianne, whose recent credits also include The Leading Player in Pippin and Celestina Warbeck at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, ought to headline some sort of witchy musical revue next Halloween, though she's clearly dynamic enough to ride both sides of the good/evil divide.
Aladdin Jesse "A.J." Demps delivers the stratospheric vocal reach that one might expect from Asaka, Mother of the Earth. They and Rhianne comprise two of the show's four gods, joined by Mandi Jo John (Erzulie) and Shonn McCloud (Agwe), who likewise bring the commanding stage presence and heavenly voices that the roles require.
Fredy Ruiz is compelling as central love interest Daniel, and he puts some impressive dance skills on display as part of the ensemble too. He's joined there by four talented "Storytellers": Kamryn C. Burton, Giancarlos Coris, the always-wonderful Danielle Harris, and Dane Paul Andres (whose voice and energy stood out as especially strong in a sea of impressive ensemble performances).
Rounding out this highly capable cast are Tonya Phillips Staples as Mama Euralie, E. Mani Cadet as Tonton Julian, Valerie Torres-Rosario as Andrea, Joshua Oliveras as Armand, and the adorable and radiant Denver Humphrey as Little Girl, whose performance consistently brings a smile to everyone's face.
On the one hand, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is about bigger and deeper themes than The Little Mermaid: class, race, gender, etc. Then again, The Little Mermaid isn't not about those things, and both tales ultimately tap into the Romeo & Juliet-ish quandary of forbidden love (though in this case, Daniel is kind of an asshole Prince Eric/Romeo).
I'm not sure that the storytelling in this musical is ever as efficient as it could be. I do find myself bored by the plodding plot, looking to the catchy music and vibrant performances to keep me invested in the themes. But ONCE ON THIS ISLAND prevails as the experience of a fable more than as the telling of a tale. (In point of fact, it is a story within a story... a show about how and why fables get constructed in the first place.) As long as we're talking about Disney princess adventures, it has Moana's sense of being first and foremost a celebration of culture and personhood and purpose. Just as impressively, the pervasive sentiment here is jubilant romance, even though the overall narrative arc is frankly kind of a bummer.
The celebration comes to life through colorful costumes courtesy of Kyla Swanberg, creative choreography from Sterling Lovett, and the breezy tropical vibes of Theater West End's seven-person orchestra under the musical direction of Austin McElwain. Co-directors Critzer and Felichia Chivaughn Wright are to be commended for pooling such incredible talent and for cultivating such a distinctive sense of place.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND happens just five more times at Theater West End, running now through October 27, 2019. Visit the theater's website to get your tickets or subscribe to this already-promising second season from the get-go.
What did you think of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Theater West End? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photos courtesy of Theater West End