Test the strength of love against the power of death and you will discover why they tell the story. The ‘they’ of Olney Theatre Center as they present Once On This Island; a brilliant musical tale of redemption, renewal, and rejuvenation, perfectly timed for this time of year. With Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Music by Stephen Flaherty, this captivating tale of life, pain, love, grief, hope, and faith inspires audiences of all ages to tell their own stories. Directed by Alan Muraoka with Musical Direction by Darius Smith, a modern focal lens frames the production to bring relevance to modern audiences with a beautiful message nestled firmly in the bosom of humanity.
Capturing the essence of the elements, Lighting Designer Marc Hurst infuses the shows with vivacious representations of color in his design work. When the Gods perform their solo songs the stage is lit with matching colors: churning blues for Agwe God of Water, fiery reds for Papa Ge God of Death, vibrant greens for Asaka Mother of the Earth and delicate pinks and purples for Erzulie Goddess of Love. Hurst’s use of blinking rainbow colors beneath the feet of the performers is a brilliant representation of life and nature thriving even in the face of fate.
Discovering beauty in trash and layering in the symbolism of Director Alan Muraoka’s reference-point framework, Costume Designer Helen Huang creates stunning costumes from various bits of detritus. Like the remnants of a storm surge washed ashore, Huang includes a tremendous amount of debris to structure striking outfits for the Gods. Her use of island-style tye-dye regroups the modern notion of the show’s introduction for all of the characters. Huang’s symbolic approach to making Ti Moune beautiful in her fabulous dress of shredded bags adds the perfect complexity to the already dynamic richness of the character.
Choreographer Darren Lee brings a tremendous amount of insight to the production, guiding the movement of the performers with the influences of the Gods and the rhythms of the island alike. Driving intensity into fierce numbers like “Pray” and balancing those routines against more jovial but equally as impressive numbers like “Mama Will Provide.” Lee’s infusion of modern moves adds an electric pulse to the performance; reiterating the director’s concept of a modern-day storm crisis center.
Director Alan Muraoka brings a stroke of genius to this musical with his framework for the production. Setting the opening scene in a storm crisis center, it draws a current emotional connecting bridge to the way a weather event can upend the lives of an island and the importance of telling a story. Muraoka draws together an exceptionally talented group of performers to bring a resplendent jubilance to the stage in this moving tale of compassion and life. Introducing a relatively new concept to musicals, Muraoka brings enticing colorful silhouette and shadow puppetry to life during “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes”; a truly unique and inventive way to move swiftly but effectively through this segment of the show.
The vocal talent featured in this production is spectacular. Duyen Washington, playing Mama Euralie and Wendell Jordan, playing Tonton Julian, are prime examples of the delightfully powerful sound created in this performance. Featured in “Pray” as well as “Ti Moune,” their voices create impressive harmonies that surge with intense emotions. Their voices are easily recognized during larger ensemble numbers featuring “Storytellers” as well; the robust sound they deliver creates swells and peaks of emotions throughout the show.
Echoing with sounds of a love-torn ingénue is Daniel (Eymard Cabling.) Having just one featured solo, Cabling uses his voice to paint classic imagery with the lyrics of “Some Girls.” The initial chemistry with Ti Moune (Aisha Jackson) is uncertain and tenuous but grows into a glorious blossom of passionate ardor. Jackson’s voice is expressive and radiates heavy emotions during featured solos like “Forever Yours” and “Waiting For Life.” With a commanding belt and ability to sustain ending notes, Jackson brings an exuberant and exciting quality of life to the character of Ti Moune. Jackson gives a fascinating dance performance during “The Ball” where her body controls the rhythm, possessing it as if she were in control of the music.
The Gods are where it is at in this production. Masterful voices, imposing stage presences, stunning emotional prowess; the four performers wrapped up in these characters make the show a performance well worth seeing. With their distinctive personalities and mighty Olympian voices coming together for the first time in the God forms during “And the Gods Heard Her Prayer” the four performers that embody these deities deliver an unbelievable show.
Papa Ge (James T. Lane) is a frightening force to be reckoned with. Lane’s facial expressions contort into images of terror when frightening Ti Moune during “Forever Yours.” His creeping vocal edge is both disturbing and wonderful when he surges into the reprise of the same number. His physicality is jarring, sharp angular motions that make him almost skeletal in his movement. Opposite of death is delicate goddess of love, Erzulie (Fahnlohnee Harris-Tate.) With her rich soothing songbird vocals, “The Human Heart” becomes a true love ballad, evoking deep sentiments when she sings. Her movements are fluid and tender; fully representing the notions of love and how easily they can thrive in the face of death.
The powerhouse vocals come from Agwe, God of Water (Nicholas Ward) and Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Theresa Cunningham.) Both performers bring a fierce presence to the stage as they embody their roles; Cunningham’s portrayal leaning to the sassier notions of “mamma knows best” while Ward plays into the almighty aspect of his character. Cunningham leads the cast in a festive dance for her solo “Mama Will Provide,” a song that showcases her natural dancer’s instinct as well as her impressive vocal power.
Listen carefully for Cunningham’s intense blast of sound near the end of “Pray.” Ward masters the song “Rain” with his voice rivaling the sea in a tempest; crashing with the powers of thunder, rolling like enormous waves.
With so many reasons to tell the story, and an equal number of reasons to hear it be told, you must go see this incredible production of Once On This Island at Olney Theatre Center.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Once On This Island plays through May 4, 2014 on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center— 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. For tickets call (301) 924-3400 or purchase them online.