ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
Book by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the novel 'My Love My Love' by Rosa Guy
AT&T Performing Arts Center
Directed by Michael Arden
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
Music Supervisor: Chris Fenwick
Scenic Design by Dane Laffrey
Costume Design by Clint Ramos
Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Orchestrations: AnnMarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin
Sound Design by Peter Hylenski;
Hair and Wig Design by Cookie Jordan
Make-Up Design by Cookie Jordan
Found Instrument Design: John Bertles and Bash The Trash
Associate Director: Justin Scribner
Production Stage Manager: Kelsey Tippins
TAMYRA GRAY (Papa Ge)
JAHMAUL BAKARE (Agwe)
KYLE RAMAR FREEMAN (Asaka)
CASSONDRA JAMES (Erzulie)
McKYNLEIGH ALDEN ABRAHAM (Storyteller)
PHILLIP BOYKIN (Tonton Julian)
BRIANA BROOKS (Andrea)
GEORGE L. BROWN (Armand)
MICHAEL IVAN CARRIER (Storyteller)
COURTNEE CARTER (Ti Moune)
JAY DONNELL (Storyteller)
DANIELLE LEE GREAVES (Mama Euralie)
TYLER HARDWICK (Daniel)
PHYRE HAWKINS (Storyteller)
SAVY JACKSON (Storyteller)
ALEX JOSEPH GRAYSON (Storyteller)
TATIANA LOFTON (Storyteller)
ROBERT ZELAYA (Storyteller)
MIMI CROSSLAND (Little girl)
MARIAMA DIOP (Little girl)
Reviewed Performance: 12/17/2019
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The dynamic and wonderfully creative duo that is Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have composed music and written lyrics for such diverse musicals as ANASTASIA, ROCKY, SEUSSICAL, MY FAVORITE YEAR, CHITA RIVERA: THE DANCER’S LIFE, RAGTIME, and ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. Once their creations opened on the Great White Way they were met with varied reactions and outcomes from both critics and audiences. This is nothing new as all composers have faced the same situation once they let go of their artistic creation out into the world for all to see, hear, and dissect.
I have had the great thrill to see three of their musicals during their original runs on Broadway: CHITA RIVERA: THE DANCER’S LIFE, RAGTIME, and ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. It was last summer when I saw the Broadway revival of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Circle on the Square, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
Flaherty and Ahrens made their Broadway debut with their musical ONCE ON THIS ISLAND in 1990 at the Booth Theatre. Back then I was performer schlepping for the mouse at Walt Disney Entertainment. One of the choreographers had a friend in the cast so we flew to New York to see the show. I still vividly remember that fantastic original cast. But it was on that night that I was introduced to an actress who had that talent that blinds you and you know you are in the presence of someone remarkable. Her name was LaChanze. I would go on to see and meet her again after her Broadway performances in RAGTIME (She took over the role of “Sarah”), THE COLOR PURPLE (Which earned her the Tony Award), and just last year in SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical. I think the gods of the Island played fate way back that night.
From their body of work, the score that I am quite attached to is ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. For me, next to RAGTIME, I consider their score for ONCE ON THIS ISLAND one of the finest works in their repertoire. It just has a sumptuous, robust sound to it. The music is composed of rich voices that can blend and harmonize in the tightest keys and then belt to the highest notes. It is gospel mixed with tropical Caribbean flavors.
The book by Stephen Flaherty is like a cool, fresh breeze of originality when it first appeared on the stage boards. But in a profound twist of reality, what the themes and storyline unfold on stage explore and mirror what is happening just outside the doors of the Winspear Opera House and echo across our nation today. But it is not some hammer banging over your head message, it is a beautiful, powerful message expressed through glorious music and voice. What touches your heart more is that the story is repeated by a child.
When I saw the Broadway revival there were changes, cuts, and edits that I noticed from the original. For example, there are a couple of musical numbers that were in the original that were deleted for the revival. Regarding the book, the one major edit is the removal of Daniel’s son. In the original, in the end, a young girl and a young boy play together by the special creation that the gods left. That little boy is Daniel’s son. All this symbolized to the audience that all races and all social classes can come together as one and unite with the power of love and joy. That is now gone and what you see now is in the new finale. I must admit I think the revival ending is much more emotional and powerful.
With this national tour, there have been some slight changes regarding the set. At the Circle in the Square production, it was done completely in the round, and you felt so close to the cast and the set. For the revival, Scenic Designer Dane Laffrey created a hodgepodge of wreckage fashioned into livable quarters of a village that just survived a hurricane. The entire floor was pure sand. For the tour, Laffrey had to now adjust his set to go from in the round to fit proscenium theaters across the country. He now has added scaffolding for the musicians to be placed on. There are now pockets of space on stage where some members of the audience do get to sit on stage for a much closer view of the show, but alas the majority of the house does not. Unfortunately, I did feel for the first time a slight detachment from the material. That intimacy at Circle made all of us in the audience feel as we were part of the village and united. But for the tour, sadly it lacked that.
Despite that Dan Laffrey’s scenic design looks authentic in its vision of a village coping to live with what they have after a hurricane. With just a couple of simple set pieces such as iron gates, a small boat, crates, chandeliers, etc. he easily transforms his sets into a French ballroom, the depths of hell for the Demon of Death, and so on. Julies Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting design compliments the set with lush and ingenious lighting all evening long. Clint Ramos’ costumes for the villagers are simple and realistic, for the French aristocrats are elegant and refined, and for the four gods they are truly creative and magical.
The company of first-rate singers, dancers, and actors were phenomenal! Every single one of them brought so much joy, passion, and energy to each musical number and scene. The only problem that crept up off and on within the company was diction, especially in the ensemble numbers. Regrettably, in some musical numbers, the diction became garbled and mushy. I toss it up to an off night.
The best musical number of the evening is by the company titled, "Ti Moune's Dance". This number takes place at the ball when Andrea, the rich French girl asks Ti Moune to dance because she has heard how wonderful of a dancer she is. But she just wants her to make a fool of herself in front of the rich aristocrats. Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter) softly and quietly builds the number in movement and energy. But as she begins to let the music take over her body, she allows the love and pride for her people, her music, her nation ebb through her body and energy it affects both the aristocrats and servants. This results in a magnificent, soaring, heart-pounding number that is a wonder to watch live on stage. The choreography by Camille A. Brown for this number is smashing! It has such a textured subtext in its choreography with compelling emotion. When the number ended it was met with the loudest and longest surge applause and cheers. It was that forceful of a musical number!
The four gods all deliver heavenly performances: Jahmaul Bakare as “Agwe”- god of water; Kyle Ramer Freeman as “Asaka”- Mother of the earth; Cassondra James as “Erzulie”-Goddess of Love; and Tamyra Gray as “Papa Ge”-The Demon of Death.
The role of “Asaka” was originated by Kecia Lewis-Evans, but the role was taken over with Tony Award winner Lillias White. For the revival, I saw Alex Newell in the role. The tour has Kyle Ramer Freeman in the role of the Grande dame goddess. Freeman had delicious fun with the role commanding the stage as the mama who will give Ti Moune her creations to make her journey comfortable. She’s the flight attendant of plant earth! Freeman has one of my favorite songs from the rich score, “Mama will Provide”. And just like White and Newell did when they wrapped their vocals around this number, Freeman added fierce vocal runs and riffs and wicked fresh fun to the lyrics to make the song his own.
Cassondra James as “Erzulie” was costumed in blinding white chiffons and an ornate headdress making her an ethereal goddess of love. Ms. James has a marvelous, rich soprano voice that fits beautifully for another personal favorite song from the score, “The Human Heart”. And let’s give her an extra round of applause for playing the flute on stage wonderfully in several numbers!
This is my second chance to catch the amazing Tamyra Gray on stage. She was here at ATT Performing Arts Center in 2016 as “Kate” in the national tour of IF/THEN: A New Musical. This time she returns to the Winspear Opera House completely unrecognizable as the sinister “Papa Ge”-The Demon of Death. She is costumed in a combination of a semi- quasi dominatrix / Tina Turner Thunderdome / Spiked reptile. As the sinister dark lord from below Gray uses a much lower growling speaking voice that reminds me of the goblin in Tom Cruise’s LEGEND. Gray slithers around the stage and laughs with bone-chilling cruelty. She displays wicked fun in the role.
Courtnee Carter delivers a superlative performance as “Ti Moune”, an orphaned girl who falls in love and makes a deal with the gods to keep that love. Carter is a vision of beauty indeed; she physically reminds me of a young Diana Ross. Carter has a luxurious soprano voice that wraps itself bewitchingly around this illustrious score. Carter’s stage presence is enchanting and has a warm, loving glow that makes the audience immediately care for her and her journey. Her chemistry with every actor and the ensemble is tight, strong, and believable. From her parents to the gods, to Daniel, she connects with each of them with such organic truth, love, and deep respect. Carter’s acting choices and subtext stick to truth and devoid of shlock or blandness. Nothing can harm a musical more than leading performers falling into hammy, paint by number acting because they put all their eggs into the one basket- i.e. focus- which is the score. You need your acting craft to seep so much into the lyrics and book as much (if not more so) as the vocals. Carter’s creation of “Ti Moune” is a perfect example of how to deliver that kind of brilliant, celestial performance.
Within this admirable cast delivering standout performances also include Phillip Boykin (Tonton Julian); Danielle Lee Greaves (Mama Euralie) and Tyler Hardwick (Daniel).
Theaters around the metroplex are currently overfeeding you the usual annual Christmas holiday musical or play. I guess that’s fine if you want to sit through the same yet again. Why not expand your horizons? See something different? See something that will make your heart swell up? May I suggest a completely FRESH, NEW, EXCITING and SPLENDIFEROUS musical to see instead? Well then, May I suggest you and a friend, or your whole family go and see ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at the Winspear Opera House. Believe me, you will walk out with your heart full of love and warmth thanks to work and magic created by this cast and production. And isn’t that what we ALL could use a lot right now?
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND (National Tour)
AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House (Dallas Texas).
RUNS ONLY ONE WEEK THRU DECEMBER 22, 2019
TICKET INFO: https://www.attpac.org/on-sale/2019/once-on-this-island/
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