Community is the driving force behind the sea of emotions fueling lyricist-librettist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty’s wonderfully heartfelt, relevant, tuneful, and inspirational 1990 musical Once on This Island. As recent disasters and current events at home and abroad strike a deep chord, specifically the Memorial Day tornadoes in Dayton, it is all too clear how important this show has become since its inception and how outstanding it is on tour at the Schuster Center in its Ohio premiere courtesy of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series.
The recipient of the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, Once on This Island, adapted from Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love, is an ill-fated, haves vs. have nots, Caribbean-infused love story set in the French Antilles. As the islanders gather in the aftermath of a huge storm, a group of Storytellers share the tale of orphan Ti Moune (radiantly winsome and confident Courtnee Carter), a poor, dark-skinned peasant girl who boldly defies all logic in her valiant quest to win the heart of the wealthy, light-skinned Daniel Beauxhomme (charming tenor Tyler Hardwick). Despite the pleas and warnings of her devoted adoptive parents Mama Euralie (sincere yet formidable Broadway veteran Danielle Lee Greaves) and Tonton Julian (Tony nominee Phillip Boykin reprising his role from Broadway and gently displaying authoritative concern), impulsive Ti Moune throws caution to the wind and demands she leave home to journey to the other side of the island to care for the injured Daniel, whose car accident near the outset is the catalyst for their budding romance. As Ti Moune and Daniel ultimately grow closer causing rumors to fly and suspicions to swell, four gods (Agwe: Water; Asaka: Mother of the Earth; Papa Ge: Death; Erzulie: Love) closely monitor and converse with Ti Moune in an attempt to discover whether death or love is more powerful, especially villainous Papa Ge (dynamically disturbing American Idol alumna Tamyra Gray, reprising her role from Broadway and commanding the stage with a fierce strut, intimidating cloak, and husky demonic voice) who doesn’t forget Ti Moune’s startlingly determined declaration that she would give her life for Daniel.
Ahrens and Flaherty, who won the Best Original Score Tony for 1998’s marvelous, timelessly topical Ragtime, terrifically capture the tropical essence and overall earnestness of the story and its inhabitants. Spirited opening number We Dance, a perfect example of the A&F songwriting pedigree, sets a wondrously introductory tone in the vein of Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof. The equally upbeat finale Why We Tell the Story also thrives on communal joy and the significance of legacy. But an array of knockout solos is at the core of the score, among the most remarkable in the A&F canon. Carter, who understudied the role of Ti Moune on Broadway, pours superb longing, desire, innocence, vulnerability, and excitable frustration into Waiting for Life. Actor-musician Cassondra James, beautifully portraying Erzulie in addition to playing the flute, is a beguiling source of sophisticated grace and warmth throughout The Human Heart. Hardwick fills tender waltz Some Girls with clear introspection, allowing a vivid portal into Daniel’s inner conflict and responsibility. Colorful Kyle Ramar Freeman, a sensationally sassy Asaka, brings down the house with an electrifying Mama Will Provide, awesomely vocal riffing to the rafters while delectably sashaying to the hilt clothed in makeshift eleganza realness by costumer Clint Ramos.
The unique, progressive decision to have Freeman and Gray embody their particular roles is one of the great benefits of director Michael Arden’s luminous contributions. Reexamining gender identity works effortlessly in this context, particularly suggesting all communities should embrace equality and inclusivity simply due to the realization we are all more alike than we are different. Elsewhere, Arden, an environmental master whose detailed work here matches his splendid 2015 staging of Spring Awakening, supplies thrilling drama in Rain (heightened by Jahmaul Bakare’s strong vocals as Agwe and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s stunningly evocative lighting design), cinematic stagecraft in Pray, and an inspired nod to late, legendary director Hal Prince in the historical Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes, an intriguing look at Daniel’s family lineage, customs and prejudice. Still, the smallest moments shine just as bright. In addition to being moved by the heartbreaking poignancy of Ti Moune quickly departing her home without hugging her parents at the conclusion of the tear-jerking Ti Moune, I totally felt the deflating shock and disappointment in Carter’s voice and demeanor when Ti Moune reaches Daniel’s bedside only to discover he has no recollection of her crucial caregiving during his recovery. Arden also gives choreographer Camille A. Brown ample opportunities to pulsate the action with earthy, exuberant, Afrocentric vigor, notably Ti Moune’s Dance dazzlingly led by Carter.
On Broadway, this production was intimately mounted in the round at Circle in the Square, placing the audience within reach of the action with eye-catching atmospherics including substantial amounts of sand, a large pool of water and a live goat. On tour, there are noticeable space constraints, especially center stage, and less sand and water to bolster ambience. No live animals are featured as well which is mostly disappointing for those with fond remembrances of the Broadway presentation. Even so, scenic designer Dane Laffrey’s exemplary set, efficiently comprised of scaffolding, a boat, a telephone pole, rows of onstage seating, sheets enveloping the proscenium, found objects and much more, is a visual treat. Shannon Slaton’s expertly moody sound design and music director Steven Cuevas’ vibrant orchestra, placed onstage above the actors, also boosts the show’s appeal.
In my estimation, this exhilarating, must-see production remains one of the finest musical revivals of the past decade, ranking on par with Pippin, The King and I, The Color Purple (slated for Dayton Valentine’s Day weekend), Hello, Dolly!, and Oklahoma! Arden and Co. have brilliantly reassessed Once on This Island’s potency at a time when its meaningful themes of acceptance, understanding and unity is under siege. America needs this show now more than ever due to its striking reminder that it takes all of us to keep the human heart beating.
Once on This Island continues through Oct. 27 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. Dayton. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. The musical is performed in 90 minutes without an intermission. Tickets are $26-$99. A limited number of onstage, bleacher-style seating is priced at $25. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com.