Once On This Island
Slow Burn Theatre Company in Ft. Lauderdale
By: Aaron Krause - Feb 13, 2022
Slow Burn Theatre Company’s stirring production of the rousing, Caribbean-flavored folktale of a musical, Once On This Island, is simply stellar.
From dynamic, in-sync dancing to believable, charming performances and eye-popping costumes, this production amounts to an all-around winning effort. Performances run through Feb. 20 in Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Amaturo Theater.
Once On This Island, a calypso-flavored re-telling of The Little Mermaid, is a celebration of the power of positivity, storytelling, and hope. The musical’s basis is the novel My Love, My Love, by Rosa Guy.
There is division on the Caribbean island on which this musical takes place. Specifically, the wealthy, descendants of rich French planters, live on one part of the island. Meanwhile, peasants occupy another part. However, a young peasant woman named Ti Moune proves to be a uniter. She is one of musical theater’s more likable characters, right up there with Little Orphan Annie.
In fact, Ti Moune is also an orphan. The Gods who preside over the island spare her life from a storm, and two caring, protective people adopt Ti Moune. She goes on to rescue and nurse back to health Daniel, a wealthy young man from the other part of the island. But will Ti Moune’s radiant personality and affection be enough to make Daniel love her back?
Once On This Island garnered eight Tony nominations for its original Broadway run in 1990, including for “Best Musical.” This 90-minute, one-act show is a focused, uplifting, and compelling tale of one person making a difference through her determination and capacity to love. The musical, which ends bittersweetly but not predictably, leaves us with the hopeful message that the power of love is stronger than the fear of death.
The musical’s creators make up the the multi award-winning, versatile team of Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty. They are the same team behind such musicals as Ragtime and Seussical.
Once On This Island’s songs are not nearly as memorable as those in Ragtime. However, the former’s musical numbers, some energetic, some slower and softer, enhance the moods of scenes. In addition, the music, along with Ahrens simple, heartfelt lyrics, deepen the characters’ emotions. In addition to penning the lyrics, Ahrens also wrote the show’s compelling book.
Slow Burn’s talent-filled cast features actors with strong, pleasant, and expressive voices. A live, vibrant orchestra accompanies the performers without drowning them out. The performers also gracefully execute choreographer Jerel Brown’s spirited dances.
Under Patrick Fitzwater’s inspired and sensitive direction, the show’s emotional moments are truly touching. Also, Fitzwater creates striking stage pictures. In addition, he makes good use of scenic designer Cliff Price’s multi-level, expansive, detailed set. Fitzwater, who also designed the sound, has created realistic sound effects. And fortunately, this production does not suffer from sound problems.
Lighting designer George Jackson’s work features an array of colors. Among other things, they reinforce the piece’s non-realism, as does frequent stage fog. Also, the lighting helps focus the performers.
Meanwhile, Lenora Nikitin’s detailed, colorful costumes help to differentiate and define the characters.
When it comes to portraying these characters, this cast shines.
As Ti Moune, Brinie Wallace’s sunny enthusiasm and radiant smile make the young peasant woman an instantly likable character. Also, Wallace imbues Ti Moune with such hope, optimism and determination that the character of Annie comes to mind. In addition, Wallace turns in an impressively sensitive performance. Namely, the performer makes the emotional pain that Ti Moune experiences particularly vivid. You practically want to ascend the stage to comfort her during rough moments.
As Daniel, Jemarcus Riggins imbues the young man with a playful and charming demeanor. Based on this portrayal, it is easy to see why Ti Moune would fall for him – and feel so hurt when he rejects her. Daniel is not an inherently arrogant person. Rather, he was raised wealthy, and can come across as stuck up. Riggins invests Daniel with just enough pride without making the character unlikable.
Other cast standouts include Jade Jones and Geoffrey Short as Ti Moune’s caring, loving, and protective adoptive parents.
Elijah Word makes the villainous Papa Ge, an evil God, as sly and sneaky as a snake, complete with an evil laugh and a commanding presence.
Contrastingly, Kareema Khouri, Nate Promkul, and Lillie Thomas invest the good Gods with graceful traits
Fittingly, a fireplace rests centerstage. It is fitting because this Slowburn production radiates with warmth, vitality, and honest emotion.
It’s a real theater lover’s treat.