A cautionary island tale


Cassondra James as 'Erzulie' Tamyra Gray as 'Papa Ge' (Photo by Joan Marcus
Cassondra James as ‘Erzulie’ Tamyra Gray as ‘Papa Ge’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

‘Once on This Island’

4 Stars 

Walking in from the chilly lobby of the Cadillac Palace Theatre and getting my first glimpse of the stage on opening night made me immediately think that they were woefully behind getting the stage ready for the performance.

Strewn with an odd piece of corrugated metal, a shipping container, bits of lumber, a fifty gallon petroleum drum, some milk crates and what appeared to be a downed telephone pole all being adjusted and repositioned by people in a colorful array of mismatched clothing, I soon to realize that we were entering into a world created by set designer Dane Laffrey and costume designer Clint Ramos. They were depicting the everyday life of a small, remote village on an island in the French Antilles.

This exuberant production of “Once On This Island” will help you forget the cold icy streets of Chicago and warm you with the rhythms of a Caribbean inspired by Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s compositions.

The production is conceived as an immersive experience so selected audience members are invited to enjoy the performance from seats “in the village” on stage.

As the action unfolds, this is essentially the reenactment of a folk tale that starts out being told by Storyteller (McKynleigh (Alden Abraham) to Little Girl (Mimi Crossland).

MiMi Crossland as Little-Girl, Courtnee-Carter as Ti-Moune and the Company of the North American Tour of Onece on This Island. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
MiMi Crossland as Little-Girl, Courtnee-Carter as Ti-Moune and the Company of the North American Tour of Onece on This Island. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The essence is a cautionary love story with the primary message being the dangers of tempting fate, with overtones of racial and social inequality as well as a warning by the elders to stay-in-your-lane.  These themes reflect the attitudes of an indigenous culture being challenged and changed by outside forces.

Director Michael Arden along with music supervisor Chris Fenwick and choreographer Camille A. Brown, have assembled a first rate cast for this Broadway in Chicago presentation.

It stars Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune, the fearless peasant girl who sets out on a personal odyssey guided and at times cajoled by Island gods Asaka (Kyle Ramar Freeman), Agwe (Jahmaul Bakare) and Papa Ge (Tamyra Gray). She wants to be reunited with Daniel (Tyler Hardwick), an urbane Creole she loves but barely remembers their encounter.

Ti Moune is warned by her adoptive parents Tonton Julian (Philip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Danielle Lee Greaves) to stay home and seek another love, but she is propelled by love and the pact she made with the demon god Papa Ge to proceed.

There is an inventive interlude that provides some historical perspective performed through silhouette performances projected on a backlit screen. It features “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” a song that explains the separation of the socially affluent light skinned city dwellers who mixed with the Colonial French, and the indigenous peasants who are “black as night” and live in the outlying villages.

Crossland as the Little Girl has a sweet voice and is charmingly involved throughout the story, reminding us that this tale is largely for her benefit.

Carter, Hardwick, Boykin and Greaves all have opportunities to showcase their exceptional voices. And I was totally captivated by Gray who slinked and slithered about in the most menacing way as Papa Ge.

DETAILS: “Once On This Island” is at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. through Feb. 2, 2020. Running time:90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and information visit BroadwayinChicago.com or call (800) 775-2000.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

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