Theater Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND (Nat’l Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 23, 2020

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

A TREE GROWS IN THE ANTILLES

In 1990, eight years before he wrote Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty composed an eclectically exotic score for this one-act fairy tale. It’s the forthright story of a French Antilles peasant girl and the rich boy whom she adores to the unreciprocated end. Well-cooked in Lynn Aherns’ supple lyrics, Flaherty’s warm “Margaritaville” melodies echo the poignancy of Trinidad author Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel, a doomed romance which celebrates the dark-skinned Ti Moune and the search for her beloved Daniel, a coffee-colored aristocrat who lives in luxury on the other side of her island.

Ti Moune’s star-crossed quest, a love-test sanctioned then undermined by the island gods, is already legend when we hear it told and danced in this tropical folk opera with its bubbling score.

That kind of legacy storytelling makes this the most ensemble of musicals, all the more so in Broadway in Chicago’s touring production of the Tony-winning 2018 revival, now in a two-week run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Confirming the communal quality of this tribal offering, audience members are seated on the stage, witnesses to a timeless tale of the persistence of passion. There’s not a hint of Club Caribbean in Dane Laffrey’s shantytown set with its corrugated iron roofs and precarious scaffolding barely supporting the six-person band. (In fact the one stylistic criticism that could be leveled here is that the plutocrats’ privileged lifestyle is underrepresented.)

Michael Arden’s cast and musicians steep themselves in the tropical tones of a rainbow-laden show, their unstoppable songs warmly coached by Chris Fenwick. Camille A. Brown’s choreography sizzles and sparks, an infectious delight blending calypso, waltzes and African tribal dance into a shapely and torrid tempest.

Crucially, Clint Ramos’s storybook costumes deliver the crucial class distinctions between the urban overachievers (to whom emancipation meant deliverance from the poor as much as the French) and the “peasants” toiling on increasingly barren estates.

Chicago performer Courtnee Carter’s ardent Ti Moune (“Little Orphan”) seems trapped in a love trance, broken only when she erupts in an evocation of African dance to remind the island snobs of their not-so-distant origin. She incarnates the hopeful local lass who, after saving Daniel from a car crash and nursing him back to prosperity, gets a rotten deal from gods and (a) man, Ti Moune’s ardent “Waiting for Life” throbs with the foolish and unconditional trust that the young are all eager to give life.

As anguished Daniel, the “high yellow” elite scion of unearned supremacy and the unworthy recipient of Ti Moune’s healing love, handsome Tyler Hardwick rightly restrains his passion before Carter’s sacrificial adoration: His “Some Girls” captures the contradictions of Caribbean class pride.

Though everyone in this unimprovable ensemble stands out better than blends in, as the earth mother Asaka, Kyle Ramar Freeman scorches the stage with the life-affirming and self-evident anthem “Mama Will Provide.” Accompanied by anthropomorphic birds, frogs and breezes, Freeman could belt down a coconut palm with an extra breath.

The final dispensation of this bittersweet fable is the gayly decorated trunk of the tree where Ti Moune is found and to which she returns, vegetatively transformed like Daphne. Cracking open the rich folk’s swanky Hotel Beauxhommes to literally rediscover their roots, it’s the symbol of the community’s continuity and one lost lady’s resilience.

Inevitably, it’s a cold consolation for Ti Moune, losing her beloved Daniel to fellow aristocrat Andrea Devereaux (Briana Brooks) to whom he was betrothed virtually at birth. The fix was in from the start. But then, as the final chorus intones, that’s “Why We Tell the Story.”

photos by Joan Marcus

Once on This Island
national tour
ends at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre on February 2, 2020
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway In Chicago

tour continues
for dates and cities, visit Island

{ 1 comment }

Matt January 23, 2020 at 11:46 am

The quintessential human experience, now, as ever, is suffering. This is a story about refusing to let that get you down and living joyfully anyway. I think anyway… nice review!

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