Theater Review: Once on This Island

By Edith McCauley
Theater Critic

Once on This Island, originally staged in 1990, winning many awards, has not been seen in many venues. David Bell, director/choreographer, brings to the Lincolnshire Marriott Theatre a stunning version that combines song, dance, and the storytelling of the African Griot. Rarely is a director able to combine these aspects of theater in the sparse space of theater in the round while using light and fabric with such creativity.

The cast is amazing. Every actor danced beautifully, and their vocals are superb. All are members of Equity and have years of experience in every aspect of musical theater. The story begins on a remote island where Tonton Julian (Michael James Leslie) and his wife, Mama Euralie (Joslyn Jones), discover a little girl, Ti Moune, played as the child by the adorable Nya high in a tree, and take her home to raise her as their own. As the years pass, she becomes the lovely young woman eager to find the wider world. Chasten Harmon plays the adult Ti Moune. Her exquisite interpretation is a highlight.

The population of the island consists of the natives and the French, who literally own everything. Although never specifically mentioned, it seems to be Haiti. Brandon Koller is Daniel Beauxhomme, the beloved son of Armand (Max Kumangai), a powerful landowner whose every word is law. When Daniel is injured in an automobile accident, Ti Moune finds him, cares for him, then follows him back to the city hospital, where they fall in love. The entire story unfolds through the words and music of the Storytellers—Papa Ge (Jesse Means), Asaka (Melody Betts), Agwe (Byron Glenn Willis), Erzulie (Melinda Wakefield Alberty), Alysha Deslorieux, Melvin Brandon Logan and Donica Lynn.

As the lovers soon discover, their love is not to be. Ti Moune’s spectacular dance is too African, and Armand and Daniel explain that he is to marry Andrea (Caitlainne Rose Gurreri).

The use of fabric brings the set alive. From a number almost like that of a whirling dervish to the tree that centers the story, the color and movement keeps our eyes focused on every aspect of the play. The orchestra, directed by Patti Garwood, supports the singers and emphasizes the music of Africa and the Caribbean.

As the show ended, one of the ushers came to us with a message. She said Julian’s granddaughter was in the cast and wanted to see us. Waiting in the lobby, we were completely puzzled, but when Donica Lynn approached, we realized that several years ago, she and Julian had been in Steppin’ at ETA, and Julian had played her grandfather. It is so good to renew old friendships.

Once on This Island closes Aug. 29, so if you want to see it, act soon. A Chorus Line opens Sept. 1, and the season closes with The Music Man opening Nov. 3. The Marriott Theater is a bit of a drive, but well worth the trip. The box office is at 10 Marriott Drive, in Lincolnshire, Ill. The phone is (847) 634-0200. The box office is closed on Mondays.

From the Aug. 25-31, 2010 issue

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