It’s a rare occurrence that a national tour of a Broadway hit premieres at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center and rarer still that we’re given a chance to go behind the scenes, interview cast members, meet the director, and tour the incredible new road staging of the show. But that’s exactly the access Out & About was granted last week as we traveled to the Carson Center in Paducah, Kentucky where the first national tour of Once on This Island did its technical rehearsals.
Once on This Island is a story of community, connection, love, and survival. First opening in 1991, the show made actress LaChanze into a star and established the bona fides of creative team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who would go on to create Ragtime and Anastasia, seen last season at TPAC.
When a new team decided to reimagine the show for a 2017 Broadway revival, they thought all the way outside the box for the theatre they chose. The Circle in the Square Theatre is a thrust-stage house where the stage is a long, narrow playing area directly down the middle of the house and the audience sits on the two long sides and at the end. Imagine something like a fashion show runway and you’ve got the idea.
Since the majority of America’s theatres feature a traditional proscenium / framed stage where the audience is separated from the show, the show had to be assessed anew in order to make a road tour viable. The solution was to work inside the frame, but not sacrifice the intimacy and immediacy of the audience being so close to the action by having bleacher seating built into the set onstage. Every night, a certain number of audience members get to be as close to the show as one can be without an Actors’ Equity union card.
What remains utterly unique about this production of Once on This Island is that the set and costumes are created from found, reclaimed, and recycled items. The story itself involves storms overwhelming a small island in the French Antilles, leaving great destruction in its path. The stunning set evokes that feeling of crisis, ruin, and survival that are inherent to the story.
Many members of the 2017 Broadway Revival cast have decided to join the touring company to bring the show’s timeless story to America. Among them are American Idol finalist Tamyra Grey returns as the god of death, Papa Ge. Philip Boykin, who created the role of Tonton Julian in the revival, plays the same character on the road. Cassondra James assumes the role of Erzulie, the goddess of love, and Courtnee Carter takes on Ti Moune, the young woman whose story propels the action of the entire story.
During our interviews with the cast and director Michael Arden, the theme of community and belonging came into focus over and over again. Cassondra James framed it in terms of “the desire and the need to love one another.” Tamyra Grey echoed this sentiment, discussing how we need one another to remind us of our inherent strength and beauty. But what most everyone seemed to agree on emphatically is that they hope Once on This Island sparks conversations at home, long after the audience has left the theatre. The show deals with issues of racism and colonialism that we do indeed face here today and see every evening on the news. Tamyra Grey put it this way: if the cast begins the conversation, it can then continue around the table.
With themes of love, forgiveness, and light at its heart, Once on This Island hits the road, beginning tonight at TPAC’s Jackson Hall. It continues across the U.S. well into next summer. You can find out more details about the show at the show’s website. Tickets are available for the TPAC engagement at TPAC.org.