I love love love love love love love love love this production. I will be honest; I had some trepidation about seeing it because my first Broadway show ever was the 2017 revival of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Circle in the Square Theatre featuring this all-star cast: Lea Salonga, Norm Lewis, Tamyra Gray, Hailey Kilgore, Isaac Powell, and my favorite, Alex Newell as “Asaka.” It was brilliant and I thought there was no way that the Playhouse could come close to my memories of that night.
But they did – and in ways I hadn’t imagined. First, let’s talk about the directing. Robert Barry Fleming brings the story to life in such a relatable way. From start to finish, I understood that every thing that was happening was all working together to tell the story. From the tech elements (of which there are some really cool surprises) to the inspired choreography, Fleming is focused and on point.
The story is unique. Ti Moune is an orphan girl who is found in a tree by an older couple who – after some influence by the gods – decide to adopt her. A prince (Colin Carswell) washes up on shore and she heals him. Once he leaves, she goes to find him and they continue to fall in love – but as things often do, all is not going to end well for them. It’s poignant, creative, and well-told.
It helps to tell an amazing story when you have a cast this talented; the ensemble is ultra-professional and Broadway quality. In fact, many of them have been on Broadway. It’s quite an impressive roster in the playbill. I was especially taken with the star turns by Lauren Chanel as “Ti Moune” and Rheaume Crenshaw as “Mama Euralie.” The four gods anchor the story and all get a chance to shine: Sharon Catherine Brown is terrifyingly evil as “Papa Ge,” Allan K. Washington is in sync with the audience as “Agwe,” Christina Acosta Robinson is as classy as they come as “Erzulie” and got a well deserved ovation after she sang so lovely on “The Human Heart.”
Bre Jackson knocks it out of the park as “Asaka.” Frankly, I was waiting to be let down by “Mama Will Provide,” Asaka’s big number, because no one will ever top Alex Newell’s guttural, tour de force performance of that song (check out his Tony performance here) . . . but Jackson, with her smooth, effortless runs and beautiful singing voice adds just enough sass to stand alone as a fantastic performance. It was special and many in the opening night audience knew it, too, as she got an applause break mid-song and a rousing ovation after it was over.
I also enjoyed performances from Kenneth Robinson (“Tonton Julian”), Alexis Louise Young (“Andrea”), and local hero Ken Early, who absolutely belongs in the mix of this out-of-town cast. Alfie Jones Jr. and Christina Booker accentuate the tale in the ensemble, and the young actress playing “Little Ti Moune” on opening night was a fierce and ferocious dancer during the finale. (She is played by two actresses, Morgan O. Reynolds and Asada Austin, and I’m not sure who was in the role in this performance).
Andrew Smithson’s musical direction is more than proficient, with the orchestra under the stage sounding great. There were no glaring audio issues – a giant pet peeve of mine – and so special shout out to the sound designer Daniel Perelstein and his staff. The set is intimate and small, as designer Jason Ardizzone-West uses a cheater wall to ensure the cast is as close to the audience as possible – and to allow for some very cool reveals late in the show. The brilliance extends to Alan Edward’s visually striking lighting design, with several fun features throughout the show. Lex Liang’s costume design is in line with the story and I especially enjoyed his use of various items as head-pieces, especially the front face of a fan.
Steven Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the authors of this show, have written a compelling and musically brilliant show. I’m glad it’s back in the public consciousness; there’s a national tour starting soon. The revival won the Tony for Best Revival in 2018 and deservedly so. This production at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park is award-worthy, too, and so much better than I’d ever imagined.
Do not miss it!
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND plays through October 6th. Check out the website for more details and take a look at the special Tuesday $10 offer if you’re on a tight budget. Also don’t forget cash to donate to the American Red Cross after the show to help with relief efforts from storms like Hurricane Dorian.