How is it possible that Michael Arden has been an integral part of three of my favorite nights of musical theatre across my twenty-five years spent going to touring and Broadway productions? Like, really, how is that even statistically possible? As Tom Sawyer in Deaf West Theatre‘s 2003 revival of Big River, as director of Deaf West’s 2015 Broadway revival of Spring Awakening, and now as the director of an entirely reimagined production of 1990’s Once on This Island, I feel like I should bow as supplicant to Arden’s work.
You can imagine how much I’ve anticipated seeing this touring production of Once on This Island, especially after Friday’s press preview (read about that here) in Paducah, Kentucky. Let me put it plainly: You have seven more chances to see this show at TPAC. If you do not heed my advice and see it this week, I may never speak to you again. It’s that good. No, really. It. Is. That. Good.
If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you’ve likely figured out that I attempt to refrain from gushing in some sort of stab at objective journalistic integrity. But screw it. Arden’s production of Once on This Island is thrilling, beautiful, and innovative. It’s hard to get a veteran lover of musicals to weep, but Arden’s work has made that happen three times now in the last sixteen years and I’m believer.
Once on This Island premiered in 1990 and very quickly established lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty as a talented, bankable team. (They would go on to create my favorite musical of the 90s – Ragtime – a few years later.) A ninety-minute fairy tale, Once on This Island tells the tragic tale of Ti Moune, a young island girl, as her life is shaped and moved by the gods. Her island is a paradise ruled by Agwe, the God of Water; Asaka, the Mother of the Earth; Erzulie, the Goddess of Love; and Papa Ge, the Demon of Death.
This divine quartet is brilliantly inhabited by Jahmaul Bakare, Kyle Ramar Freeman, Cassondra James, and Tamyra Gray, respectively. Each shines in their individual role and spectacularly delivers their signature numbers, but it’s the competition between love and death – Erzulie and Papa Ge – that builds the crux of the conflict in the musical. Which god will have the final say in Ti Moune’s fate?
As the orphaned Ti Moune, Courtnee Carter has the heavy lifting to do in the show, even as her story is determined by the fickle hearts of the gods. And it is she who gets to prove most readily that she’s a genuine triple-threat actress, singer, and dancer. What’s even better is that the heavy lifting looks very light indeed in her hands. The entire cast, in fact, presents the material with such joy that you sometimes do forget that this is work.
The parable within this production of Once on This Island has been set in the aftermath of a storm that has left the small Caribbean island tossed and broken. The village’s small family comes together in the morning to do what it has done countless times before: assess, clean up, and gather. Dane Laffrey’s evocative setting is filled with sand, the textures and grit of island life, and allows some audience members to sit on tiered bleacher seating onstage, becoming part of the story.
This national tour has become a unique re-re-telling of Once on This Island. The 2017 Broadway revival upon which this is based was housed in Broadway’s only full thrust-stage configuration house with a runway-like playing area and the audience surrounding the action on three sides. For the road, Laffrey’s been given the chance to go back to basics and consider how to paint his picture over again for a traditional stage set up behind a proscenium arch. Added playing areas include the tail end of an enormous tractor trailer, the wrecked hulk of a fallen telephone pole, and scaffold platforms upon which the orchestra is housed.
Speaking of that band, even the show’s orchestrations have been freshened to give a new approach to percussion with found objects (think STOMP! and its ilk). Cassondra James’ Erzulie even becomes a part-time flute player across the evening. The found-object costuming (beautifully envisioned by Clint Ramos), inventive choreography (Camille A. Brown), sumptuous lighting (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer) and funky orchestrations (AnnMarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin) make this rather a complete package when it comes to creating a unique, beautiful sensory environment.
Once on This Island gives the impression of being a perfect little package of a musical and it is. Laughs and tears come equally. If you’re one who loves a good toe-tapper of a song, you’re likely going to find yourself stomping your entire foot. And if go to theatre seeking some revelatory cathartic moment in your heart, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that this show will give you exactly what you want. I think star Tamyra Gray put it best when she was asked why she wanted to continue with the show after Broadway when she said “I wasn’t done telling the story.”
And after last night, I can see why. Once on This Island’s story is simple, but perfectly told. It’s appropriate for a show with the gorgeous song “The Human Heart” to have a bright, bold, beating sense of purpose at its core. In the end, it’s a show that will remind you of that there is beauty and worth inside us and that love, indeed, can conquer death. (Sorry, Papa Ge.)
You have seven chances left to see Once on This Island at TPAC before it blows away into your memories. Tickets remain available at TPAC.org and you can find a performance schedule on the website. A lottery for the show is in place and can be accessed at the TPAC Concierge app, available for iPhone and Android.