With slushy sidewalks and dripping icicles everywhere, seeing a show called ONCE ON THIS ISLAND might sound like taking a break from winter with a tropical cocktail. But make no mistake: This revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Caribbean musical, directed by Michael Arden, serves its theatrical drink with a hefty dash of bitters.
The stage of the Cadillac Palace Theatre – where ONCE ON THIS ISLAND runs through February 2nd – provides the first surprising sip. For a mythical tale set in the French Antilles, you’d expect palm trees, lush flora and glowing sunlight. Well, hardly. The space is so packed with people and things, it’s hard to believe that mythological events could happen there.
Crammed into one corner are risers where several dozen audience members await the start of the show. On the other side, a shipping container serves as makeshift housing. In between, graffiti-scrawled corrugated metal, cardboard panels, overturned rowboat, multi-colored rag streamers and other recycled objects convey the subsistence life of the island’s peasant population. Not much protects these folks from hurricanes and floods. What may be a troublesome weather event for wealthy residents and tourists means immense destruction for impoverished locals.
Clothes instead of costumes in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
As soon as the Calypso-fused score begins, the cast springs into action to build a world of haves and have-nots, reality and fantasy, chaos and reprieve. The actors are dressed so recognizably – like folks just beyond hotel grounds on a package tour – that they seem to be wearing street clothes instead of costumes. Only when the four Gods, who control the fates of ordinary mortals, make their appearance in outlandish garb does the story get on its supernatural way.
The God of Water creates a violent storm that robs a toddler of her parents; but he teams up with the other three Gods to save her life by perching her in a tree. After the flooding subsides, an elderly couple adopt her and name her Ti Moune during the glorious “One Small Girl” number. After Ti Moune blossoms into a beautiful young woman (Courtnee Carter), the Gods return to dally with her fate. To explore the strength of love versus death within her character, they crash the car of Daniel (Tyler Hardwick), a young aristocrat, and leave her to keep him alive till Daniel’s family is alerted and they whisk him away.
Ahrens-Flaherty show delves into class and color
Dark-skinned Ti Moune is utterly smitten with the light-skinned Daniel, the mixed-race descendant of a French colonialist, and tracks him down at his parents’ elegant hotel. There, she throws herself into healing him – and loving him too. She mistakes his ardor for commitment and, at a European-style ball, also mistakes the attention she receives for leading an uninhibited dance as social acceptance. Not only do these high society types toy with Ti Moune’s head and heart, the Gods do as well. She just cannot accept her homeland’s rigid class order and responds according to her deep love for Daniel.
Broadway in Chicago’s presentation of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is colorful, drumbeat-rich and engaging. However, this viewer found some of the lyrics and dialogue tough to catch because of a less-than-precise audio system and the cast’s strong Caribbean accents – appropriate but heavy-going for Midwestern ears. If you’re not familiar with the plot and lyrics, it may be helpful to spend some time on Google before heading to the theater.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
“American Idol” Alum Tamyra Gray as Papa Ge, Cassondra James as Erzulie, Tony Nominee Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian, Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune and Tyler Hardwick as Daniel Beauxhomme. Completing the gods of the island are Jahmaul Bakare as Agwe and Kyle Ramar Freeman as Asaka, Briana Brooks as Andrea, George L. Brown as Armand and Danielle Lee Greaves as Mama Euralie, along with McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Michael Ivan Carrier, Jay Donnell, Phyre Hawkins, Savy Jackson, Alex Joseph Grayson, Tatiana Lofton, Robert Zelaya and MiMi Crossland & Mariama Diop.
new orchestrations by original orchestrator Michael Starobin, who is joined by AnnMarie Milazzo, Scenic Design by Dane Laffrey, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Sound Design by Peter Hylenski, Tour Sound Design by Shannon Slaton and Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
Through February 2, 2020.
Tuesdays at 7:30PM
Wednesdays at 7:30PM (added 2PM performance on Jan. 29)
Thursdays at 7:30PM
Fridays at 7:30PM
Saturdays at 2PM & 8PM
Sundays at 2PM (added 7:30PM performance on Jan. 26)
Broadway In Chicago
Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph)
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.