ONCE ON THIS ISLAND | Cadillac Palace Theatre, January 18th, 2020

4 out of 4 stars
(Originally published on Chicago Stage Standard)

Take a tropical getaway this Chicago winter with the Tony-Award winning ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Broadway In Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph) through February 2, 2020. This limited two-week engagement tells the story of Ti Moune, a fearless peasant girl in search of her place in the world, and ready to risk it all for love. Guided by the mighty island gods, Ti Moune sets out on a remarkable journey to reunite with the man who has captured her heart. This production is a celebration of pride in community and the identity we carry with each of us.

ONCE ON THIS ISLANDpremiered on Broadway October 1990 and ran for 469 performances garnering eight Tony nomination. It’s revival in 2018 won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. With such a following, it is not an exaggeration to say this show is a must-see! The scenic design by Dane Laffrey is really to be applauded in this production. Each structural part of the scene is utilized in some way throughout the production across many sight planes. The colorful palette incorporated in the design contrasted against a chaotic hurricane struck scene with downed electric poles, makeshift camps and onsite medics. The production includes a slow entrance of actors that I find to be a quintessential prelude marker in a great production that is story-telling focused.

Mindful entrances and exits make for a dynamic stage presence while also incorporating onstage seating. Tony Award nominated director Michael Arden explains the choice as “a unique experience within the footprint of every theater we play. Audiences will be invited to put their feet in the sand and surround our company, becoming part of the show. It’s our goal to give all audiences a unique perspective of the communal nature of what theater can be in hopes that ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’s story of love, hope and forgiveness might inspire young minds and hearts all across the United States to lead their lives with compassion and empathy.” 

There are several scenes that stick out in this production in particular. They are excellent examples of well-constructed theater. Mid-play using shadow play to portray backstory of one of the characters truly harkens back to the roots of storytelling. The process of conveying important and somewhat mature information through shadow imagery is a brilliant and clean way to guide the audience into a side-note moment visually while also keeping it entertaining. 

With a score that bursts with life from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the Tony Award-winning songwriters of Anastasia and Ragtime, ONCE ON THIS ISLANDis a timeless testament to theater’s unlimited possibilities. The production also boasts new orchestrations by original orchestrator Michael Starobin is joined by AnnMarie Milazzo. There is a pleathora of powerhouse voices within this cast. That will have you tapping your toes and just watching in awe at the talent onstage before your eyes. Courtnee Carter (Ti Moune) made her Broadway debut in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND and continues on with the first national tour. Carter’s vocal range is extremely impressive. The control through each note possesses full intent behind it and truly is a credit to her talent. Brava!

Additionally, the choreography is spectacular! The acclaimed choreographer Camille A. Brown (NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live) exceeds at their craft! Brown hones in on the beauty and science of choral work in this production. They utilize traditional African dance to push the narrative forward and ultimate build upon the magnitude of movements into this pinnacle in the story. Ensemble members Michael Ivan Carrier (Storyteller) and McKynleigh Alden Abraham (Storyteller, u/s Papa Ge, Andrea) both stuck out as supporting storytellers that are just a joy to watch. The movement on stage is a large part in the performance and working with occasionally complex stage directions can be challenging, but Brown’s choreography blends into the overall production’s movement. One scene that is wonderfully stage was Ti Moune finding Daniel after a car crash. The entire sequence required acute attention to detail in the movement on stage with some incredible transitions that were well executed! 

The magical realism could not come full circle without the four gods/goddesses: Kyle Ramar Freeman (Asaka), Jahmaul Bakare (Agwe), Cassondra James (Erzulie) and Tamyra Gray (Papa Ge). In the Broadway revival, James was a replacement for Erzulie, an original storyteller and flute player, while Gray starred as Papa Ge. These two are incredibly talented! Their total encompassing characteristics in body language and voice truly are something to behold. And Tony/Grammy Nominee Phillip Boykin (Tonton Julian) and the incomparable Danielle Lee Greaves (Mama Euralie) will make you feel as if you are one of the family with their emotive acting and singing. Any aspiring musical theater folks out there would be given such a treat to see all the talent on this one stage. 

Each character begins in a modern outfit and in the case of the gods and goddesses, this transforms over time into these larger than life ethereal designs. Clint Ramos’s costume design further challenges the audience to suspend reality and accept the joy in life and what it has to tell us and where we can find comfort – in our dance, in nature, in our community. The entire production is like riding one of Agwe’s waves through the story of a young girl’s love not only for her lover, but for her island and for herself. This performance is truly a beautiful celebration of black girl magic. If you have been living under a rock, the coined phrase is a movement popularized by CaShawn Thompson in 2013 as a way to “celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women and their accomplishments.” Not only does this performance speak to the importance of treasuring our own unique stories, but the journeys we each experience in finding where we belong in this big wide world. It is a reminder that we are never alone. Regardless our background, we are reminded that love is universal and we all are on this island called Earth.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is playing now through February 2nd, 2020 for a limited two week engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. For tickets and more information, please visit Broadway in Chicago at www.broadwayinchicago.com/shows/once-on-this-island 

For more information, visit: www.OnceOnThisIsland.com. 

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