If you want a masterclass in storytelling, you need to see Once on this Island at the Ordway. This revival finds its origin in Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid.” It tells the story of Ti Moune, a girl who lives on an island that’s separated into two worlds: the world of the peasants (where Ti Moune lives) and the world of the rich Grand Hommes (where Daniel, the boy Ti Moune loves, lives). This musical is a 90-minute joy ride of high-energy and great performances the moment you walk into the theater.
Helmed by direction by Tony-Nominated Michael Arden, you are immediately immersed in the world of the play’s storytellers. A great storm has just swept through an island and the residents are picking up what’s left. When thunder is heard, the inhabitants start the story of Ti Moune to calm a young, scared girl. Nurses, fishermen, and other people are transformed into gods before our eyes, which is such an effective direction for a musical that focuses on joy and childlike wonder. The musical is almost all sung through, with music by the writing team Ahrens and Flaherty, the team behind Ragtime and Seussical. The music creates such a deep vocabulary for the show, with clear Caribbean inspirations. And with such a fun sound, it lets the actors soar.
The story’s focus is Ti Moune, played by Courtnee Carter. We see Ti Moune grow up in this piece and Carter splendidly guides us through Ti Moune’s journey, which goes from happiness to heartbreak. A scene that stands out is towards the end of the play where she is pleading with passerbys to remember her. Carter brings such raw emotion into her pleading, it’s hard not to wipe away some tears. Another unforgettable performance is Kyle Ramar Freeman playing Asaka, the god of the earth. This is an interesting casting choice, as Asaka is a female character and Freeman is a male actor. However, in an interview with the director, Arden stated that he chose to gender-reverse some of the gods because, since gods are not human, they are gender fluid. What is left is a wonderful display of rejection from the gender binary, and we just see Freeman shine. Freeman isn’t the only gender-swapped god, with Tamyra Gray playing Pape Ge, the god of death. Gray slithers around onstage as Papa Ge in such a frightening way it’s difficult to not constantly watch her.
But it’s not just the performers that shine, it’s the lighting too. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, through their company Third Eye, seem to be magicians with their lighting. They fill the stage with such vibrancy that sometimes I was just focusing on the design. Their use of color must also be noted, as it wonderfully guided me through the emotions of characters and told me where to look on the inventive set by Dane Laffery. Laffery had a very difficult task: convert a show’s set that was in the round (audience completely surrounding the stage) to one where most of the audience is on one side. Using levels, trash, and real sand onstage, he recreates the French Antilles that tells a story all on its own.
It seems like everyone involved with Once on this Island is devoted to telling the audience the best story possible, and they more than succeeded. In this fun, family show, the story comes first and it brings the audience in. You’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat during Once on this Island. The show leaves The Ordway February 9th, don’t miss “Why We Tell the Story.”