Thursday, February 6, 2020

Broadway Tour of "Once on this Island" at the Ordway Center

The 2018 Best Revival Tony winner Once on this Island is bringing all of the warmth, joy, and sorrow of a Caribbean island to frozen Minnesota. Based on a book that's based on The Little Mermaid, it tells the familiar story of a young woman who falls in love with a man she rescues on the beach, giving up her life for him, only to be rejected. But here the twist is that this young woman's love changed the world for the better. The beautiful thing about Once on this Island is the storytelling employed. It starts with a community gathered around a common space and telling a story to a frightened little girl, which humanity has been doing for millennia. This feels very much like that ancient tradition, only with a few more theatrical tricks. Head to St. Paul's Ordway Center this weekend to experience this wonderful story.

Once on this Island (by the creators of Ragtime) is structured as a story within a story. Similar to Man of La Mancha, the people telling the story take up roles in it. A young girl frightened by the storm is distracted from her fear by a story about another frightened young girl. This girl, named Ti Moune, was saved from a storm by the gods, and given to an older couple to raise as their own. Much like the mermaid Ariel, she falls in love with a man from another world who is injured while passing through her own. Ti Moune cares for Daniel until he is sent home, then follows him because she believes she is the only one who can heal him. They live happily together for a while, until Daniel informs her that even though he loves her, a man from the upper class can never marry a peasant girl. But despite the tragic ending, Ti Moune is still the hero of her own story, a story that is continually retold to inspire other little girls to be the hero of their own stories.

weaving the magic of the story (photo by Joan Marcus)
It feels appropriate during Black History Month to see this fabulously talented all African American cast, and experience the thrilling African inspired music and dancing. The Ordway stage has been transformed into the island and feels like a warm and welcoming space, complete with onstage seating that adds to the communal feel of the piece. Actors are milling around the stage before the show begins, smoothly transitioning into the storytelling. Some play percussive instruments, adding to the awesome onstage band residing in various corners of the stage. The rhythms of the music and dancing are truly infectious, and the set and costumes are quite magical in the way that they build from humble island village to the mystical world of the story. (Choreography by Camille A. Brown, scenic design by Dane Laffrey, costume design by Clint Ramos.)

the gods (photo by Joan Marcus)
This cast feels like a true ensemble as they tell this story together. Several of them also appeared in the Broadway production, which closed about a year ago. Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune is a wonderful heroine, full of fire, emotion, and gorgeous vocals. Danielle Lee Greaves and Phillip Boykin are warm yet powerful as her adopted parents, and Tyler Hardwick makes it easy to see why she feel for Daniel, singing like a dream. The gods of the island manipulate the story and are constantly hovering over the proceedings, like in many fairy tales, including Water (Jahmaul Bakare), Earth (Kyle Ramar Freeman), Death (Tamyra Gray), and Love (Cassondra James). Also observing is the child to whom the story is being told (Mimi Crossland and Mariama Diop in alternating performances), a sweet presence cared for by everyone on stage and reminding us who this story is for.

Once on this Island tells a familiar story in a new way, employing ages old methods of storytelling for an immersive and inclusive experience (or as close as you can get in a large proscenium theater). It's a wholly entertaining show that also weaves in issues of colonialism, slavery, classism, and colorism. It's a story of hope, of love, of faith that things will be better, of the importance of telling our own stories. I'll leave you with the inspiring final song of the show.

We tell the story
We tell the story!

Life is why
We tell the story
Pain is why
We tell the story
Love is why
We tell the story
Grief is why
We tell the story
Hope is why
We tell the story
Faith is why
We tell the story
You are why
We tell the story
Why we tell the story
Why we tell the story
Why we tell the story

So I hope that you will tell this tale tomorrow
It will help your heart remember and relive
It will help you feel the anger and the sorrow
And forgive

For all the ones we leave
And we believe
Our lives become
The stories that we weave

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