Creative Cauldron’s production of Once on this Island (book and lyrics by Lynn Aherns and music by Stephen Flaherty) starts off with a bang. Well, to be more precise, a thunderclap. What follows is one of the most impressive thunderstorms ever created in live theater, courtesy of Lighting Designer Joseph Lovins. And what follows that is one of the most spellbinding productions this reviewer has ever seen in twenty years as a local theatre enthusiast.
Director Matt Conner has assembled a talented cast and crew and skillfully woven them together into something that is a cohesive otherworldly being of graceful limbs and haunting voices. Together they spin the tale of a young woman, Ti Moune (brought to life by Tiara N. Whaley), who lives on a tropical island in the French Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean Sea with her adoptive parents, Tonton Julian (Harrison G. Lee) and Mama Euralie (Jade Jones). Ti Moune longs to find the purpose of her life; the gods hear her plea and decide to respond. However, these gods, like most gods throughout history, do not make things easy and straightforward. While Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Iyona Blake) and Ague, God of Water (Malcolm Lee) are mostly ambivalent about Ti Moune’s wish, Papa Ge, God of Death (Carl Williams) and Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Daphne Epps) make a bet to see which force is stronger: death or love.
A handsome stranger from the upper class end of the island, Daniel Beauxhomme, (Ian Anthony), is thrown her way whereupon Ti Moune embarks on a physical, spiritual, and emotional journey that ultimately changes her life forever. The winsome Avia Fields and the adorable Chyna Wooten (alternating performances with Hermela Samuel) also help the story unfold as Andrea/Madame Armand and Little Ti Moune respectively.
Harrison Lee and Jones are paired well as Ti Moune’s parents. Lee is a kind, gentle presence while Jones is what can only be described as a maternal powerhouse. Hers was one of the standout performances of the evening with an incredibly expressive face and a singing voice to match. Thanks to Jones, there was not a dry eye in the house during the song, “Ti Moune” as everyone was transported back to some time in their life when they had to say a difficult goodbye to a family member.
The four gods interact so naturally with each other that one cannot help but assume that they are very good friends offstage as well. Blake is the warm and comforting “fairy godmother” we all wish we had as well as the possessor of a powerful singing voice we all wish we had. Malcolm Lee’s versatility is evident as he masterfully embodies the fierce and mighty Ague as well as an amusing Armand and a lighthearted storyteller.
As Erzulie, Epps is a sparkling presence with the voice of an actual goddess. Williams, cleverly accessorized with a top hat and sunglasses, is intriguingly menacing and does a great job staying true to a character that could so easily slip into unfortunate parody.
The object of Ti Moune’s desire, Daniel, is played with endearing earnestness by Anthony, who convincingly conveys a wide range of emotions from curiosity to lust to passion with just his striking dark eyes.
Tiara Whaley’s Ti Moune is astounding. Whaley has the large innocent eyes and gorgeous melodic voice of a Disney princess. Every fiber of her being seems to pulse with hope, longing, passion, determination, and strength. Although you can probably see what is coming, your heart breaks along with hers as if you too are experiencing her devastating sorrow.
As both the music director and the pianist, Walter “Bobby” McCoy more than does justice to this reggae-influenced score. He leads an impressive group of musicians (David Burrelli on bass, Jim Hofmann on percussion, and Mila Weiss on reeds) that will leave you wondering how such a small orchestra can create such a full sound. The vocal/orchestra balance (so often a challenge in many shows) was perfect, enabling the audience to fully experience the fantastic vocal blend of the cast.
Kara-Tameika Watkins’ choreography adds the visual dimension to the music, with African and Calypso influenced movements that the cast performs with joyous passionate abandon. During the large ensemble numbers one is tempted to get up and join in!
Thanks to Scenic Designer Margie Jervis and Scenic Artists Bill Able, the cast has ample room to dance despite the small size of the space itself. The set is simple and uncluttered, containing merely a ramp, a basket, a floor painted to resemble a beach, and creative use of the theater’s built-in structural support columns. A plain white backdrop nicely enhances Lovins’ creative uses of colorful lights and darkness. Jervis also serves as the costume designer for the production, assisted by Eileen Levy. She adorns the cast in lively yellows, corals, blues, greens, and whites to great effect, leaving them barefoot to complete the tropical vibe of their ensemble.
Director Matt Conner and Stage Manager Christopher Riherd have done a beautiful job creating a show that is polished, yet genuine. I urge you to go see Creative Cauldron’s Once on This Island or risk missing one of the best local productions of the spring!
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Once on This Island plays through May 31, 2015 at Creative Cauldron – 410 South Maple Ave, in Falls Church, VA in the Pearson Building Square Building at the intersection of Maple Avenue and Lee Highway (Washington Boulevard). For tickets, purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of ‘Once on This Island’ at Creative Cauldron: Part 1: Malcolm Lee.
Meet the Cast of ‘Once on This Island’ at Creative Cauldron: Part 2: Ian Anthony Coleman.
Meet the Cast of ‘Once on This Island’ at Creative Cauldron: Part 3: Carl Williams.