Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Having missed out on seeing the Tony Award-winning 2018 revival of Once on This Island on Broadway, I was very excited to see it in its traveling version, which arrived in Chicago this week. From others who did see the show at Circle in the Square in New York, I have heard how intimate this version was, how the cast interacted with the audience, etc. But there was no possible way to transfer that dynamic to the kind of large auditoriums (like the Cadillac Palace) that the show would visit on the road. It would be like expecting a traveling version of last year’s Oklahoma revival to feed the entire audience at such theatres chili at intermission, as it did in the same Broadway room. So I expected not a true rendering of the Broadway experience but a version of it aimed more for a huge proscenium theatre.
I was not at all disappointed. The 1990 Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical has been reimagined by director Michael Arden and choreographer Camille A Brown to take place not on a sandy beachfront but instead in the kind of broken down, lower class, mixed use area where the peasants telling this story might actually live. All of the beautiful and occasionally whimsical music remains as well as the sense of magic that is engendered not just by the tale itself but by the joining together of an entire town to tell it in order to calm down one little girl.
In the preshow, as some audience members are led to seats on the stage itself (an attempt to mimic that interactive Broadway aspect, but one that probably resulted mostly in those with stage seats seeing players’ backs for much of the play), the people of this little community interact with each other. We watch them greet each other warmly as they clean up from what apparently was a pretty big storm—at least strong enough to bring down a telephone pole. But the storm is not over, and when a child among them screams at the newly arrived thunder, the whole group comes together to play out a tale born from island mythology of the orphan girl TiMoune and her love for a “grande homme” named Daniel—and her encounters with the local gods.
Those gods form the basis for the peasants’ mythology, and are played here by some absolutely excellent performers, two of whom played these roles on Broadway, led by Tamyra Gray’s stellar work as Papa Ge, the “sly demon of death.” Gray takes the “demon” part very literally, as her incarnation of Papa Ge is terrifying at times, contrasting perfectly with the other gods including goddess of love Erzulie (Cassondra James, also of the Broadway show), god of water Agwe (Jahmaul Bakare), and goddess of the earth Asaka (an amazing performance by Kyle Ramar Freeman).
It is a bet among the gods—which is stronger, love or death?—that sets the story’s action in motion, in a tradition of deities using humans as playthings that stretches back at least to the Bible (remember Job?) and pretty much anything connected to Zeus. This time around, the human who is their focus is TiMoune (Courtnee Carter, who gets to show off her dancing skills in this role), a girl who is convinced that the gods must have saved her from a previous hurricane so that she might do something great. Her opportunity arrives when she happens upon a car accident and saves the boy who was driving, Daniel Beauxhomme (Tyler Hardwick), a wealthy young man from the other side of the island. So determined is TiMoune that he is meant to be her husband that, despite the pleas of her adoptive parents (Philip Boykin and Danielle Lee Graves), she goes after him when his people come to take him home.
It’s a beautiful story, albeit a heartbreaking one, as the “two worlds” of these young lovers, which were “never meant to meet,” collide. Separated by race and economics, TiMoune and Daniel are a couple at odds not only with the gods but also with society itself, where the differences in their status stand in their way. Though the play was written in 1990 and set in the Netherlands Antilles, these underlying social themes are obviously at least as powerful in today’s America, where the divides between rich and poor and black and white just seem to keep growing. Once on This Island’s version of the situation is often amusing, like the “car” Daniel drives, which is cleverly created by the storytellers using whatever they can find, or Asaka’s “Mama Will Provide,” in which dancers briefly assume the roles of birds, frogs, etc.
The finale of this show is called “Why We Tell the Story,” and there is no doubt in this version that the reasons are at least as important as the story itself. It’s a joy to watch, and certainly keeps the young girl (played alternatively by Mimi Crossland and Miriama Diop) from worrying about the storm for awhile. It also allows the storytellers themselves, who have seen their island repeatedly ravaged by nature’s fury (as we have witnessed recently in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and other places in the Caribbean), the opportunity to come together as a community to begin healing. This traveling production may not be the same experience as those fortunate enough to see it on Broadway had, but the power of the Ahrens/Flaherty score still resonates and the Arden/Brown staging amps up the emotion. It’s an ebullient musical that is well worth seeing.
Once on This Island is a Broadway in Chicago production now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, IL, until Feb 2. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there are no intermissions. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.