The national tour of Michael Arden’s Tony Award-winning revival of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND has arrived in Chicago in a blaze of color and light. While Arden’s production makes clear that the tropical island in the French Antilles where the musical takes place is no stranger to the devastating effects of natural disasters, it’s also a staging filled with joy and rich visuals. Dane Laffrey’s found objects aesthetic for the scenic design also conveys the musical’s occupancy between the nebulous space of reality and the mystical world of the four gods that guide the musical’s protagonist Ti Moune on her journey.
Though past productions of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s ONCE ON THIS ISLAND have traditionally been cast using predominantly black actors, Arden’s vision for the musical involves a diverse group of performers when it comes to ethnicity and gender identity. While Ahrens’s book and lyrics seem to suggest that certain gods, in particular, are played by actors of prescribed genders, Arden’s casting cleverly subverts this. After all, Arden’s vision seems to suggest that us mere mortals cannot actually ever know what deities might really look like. Namely, Kyle Ramar Freeman essays the role of Asaka, Mother Earth (traditionally played by a female-identifying actor) and Tamyra Gray takes on Papa Ge, the demon of death. Both are stunning performances. Freeman tears into the rousing number “Mama Will Provide” with the power it demands, assuring young Ti Moune that the earth will provide her what she needs on her journey to her star-crossed lover, Daniel. Gray is similarly magnetic as Papa Ge, drawing us into her demonic ways. As Erzulie, the goddess of love, and Agwe, the god of water, Cassondra James and Jahmaul Bakare also command the stage with the presence of supreme beings. James not only nails her solo “The Human Heart,” but also adds to the production by playing the flute.
While the gods in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND have a universal presence, the musical’s central narrative about Ti Moune, a young peasant woman, and her love Daniel, a privileged grand homme, is more divisive. As befits the mythical nature of the narrative, Ti Moune and Daniel’s epic love story is painted in rather broad strokes. Courtnee Carter plays Ti Moune as unabashedly naive, willing to risk it all for her love without fear. As portrayed by Carter, Ti Moune’s naivety is ultimately what allows her to relentlessly pursue her love with ceaseless optimism; her pursuit of Daniel without concern for societal boundaries fuels her. As befitting such a protagonist, Carter is also a mighty capable singer and dancer. When Carter’s Ti Moune dances, it’s easy to see why Daniel is so captivated. Though Daniel is less fleshed out on the page, Tyler Hardwick makes him agreeable while still conveying the character’s stiffness and attachment to tradition.
On the whole, Arden’s vision for ONCE ON THIS ISLAND has a delightful communal feel. While Ti Moune and Daniel question whether they can cross great social divides to be together, the production makes great use of choral work. Instead of a full orchestra, the staging features a band located on stage. And each key moment of action is underscored by the storytellers, who help the main characters relay the musical’s tale and who provide backing vocals that make the numbers all the more vibrant. Though this ONCE ON THIS ISLAND does not shy away from conveying the injustices of natural disasters and racial and social divides, it also is never short on joy and hope.
The national tour of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND plays Broadway In Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, through February 2. Tickets are $25-$99.50. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com