Mike Woody reviews ‘Once on This Island’, which continues at the Schuster Center through October 27.
After first seeing the set of an impoverished island with the cast in a collection of donated clothing, I kept expecting Elder Cunningham to appear. It quickly became evident though that ‘Once on This Island’ is not about Mormon theology, but is centered around four other God’s. All denominations can agree that the show is blessed and worthy of praise for its beautiful voices and amazing set.
The staging of ‘Once on This Island’ is brilliant and creates the feeling of really being on an island. Especially for those seated directly on the stage. The utilization of all the assorted objects to suddenly create things like a car and a steel gate, while also serving as musical instruments is awe-inspiring. Plus the use of real sand, water and fire is very impressive. (Sand, water and fire...sounds like a cover band). The lighting is also exceptionally done, which is an element I rarely take note of. Simply put ‘Once on This Island’ is visually spectacular.
Without spoiling anything, the storyline centers around Ti Moune a poor young girl who loses her family in a ferocious storm. She is taken in by a couple struggling to provide for just themselves. Their decision though is undeniable as Mimi Crossland is charming as the young Ti Moune. She quickly grows though into a young woman, played by Courtnee Carter. Carter is radiant in the role, with a magnificent voice and spectacular dance moves. A rich, suave, handsome Daniel (Tyler Hardwick) crashes into Ti Moune’s life and a forbidden love is formed. A number of obstacles stand between the couple, will their love blossom or not? Ti Moune is deeply rooted in it.
The course of Ti Moune’s life is highly reliant upon the islands God’s. The God’s slowly transform throughout the show, beginning in plain clothes while muttering around stage in the unique opening. (It's unlike anything seen before.) They end up in distinct costumes. The God's are led by American Idol (season 1) alum, Tamyra Gray as Papa Ge (Death God). The sinister way Gray slithers across the stage is sinfully divine. Simon Cowell would give her performance two thumbs up and in the words of Randy Jackson, 'Yo, yo, yo Dawg.' Gray actually makes death a pleasure to watch. Too beautiful to just be an angel, so ranked as a God is Cassondra James as Erzulie, who represents love. James' voice is as illuminant as her complexion as all of her elements brighten the stage.
Among the highlights is the energized rendition of 'Mama Will Provide' by Asaka (Mother Earth), played by Kyle Ramar Freeman. Yes, a male, though Freeman makes a very convincing woman. I spent much of the show debating his gender and had settled on female before checking the program. Of course, who doesn't look like a lady when wearing a skirt made of a plastic tablecloth? The final God is Agwe, Jahmaul Bakare, who represents rain with a thunderous voice.
Other standouts amongst the talented cast are Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian. Boykin has a captivating presence and booming vocals. It's no surprise that he's been nominated for both a Tony and a Grammy. Also, the future looks bright for the previously mentioned MiMi Crossland.The role is shared with Mariama Diop who is certainly just as cute.
Scenes to look out for include the French history lesson, done entirely in shadows and is worthy of being an act on Americas Got Talent. The audience also really peeked up for Ti Moune’s dance scene at the ball.
‘Once on This Island’ is just one act, 90 minutes long, without a single second wasted. It’s a complete show that doesn’t leave you feeling deprived of a second act. A lot is jammed into the time given. It’s the type of show in which more would be discovered with every viewing. You can't see it a second time though, without first seeing it once. ‘Once on This Island’ continues at the Schuster Center through October 27.