A Superb Young People’s Production of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND

by Kelly Thunstrom

On the front page of the program of the Young People’s Theatre Workshop’s production of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, there is a note from producer Claudia Carlsson. In it, she states that she wanted to take her young actors and actresses out of their “comfort zone” by doing a show that may be completely unfamiliar to most audiences (I count myself in that!). With their last three shows being Sleeping Beauty Kids, The Wizard of Oz, and Willy Wonka Kids, Carlsson definitely took a big risk by asking young people to immerse themselves in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. While it is described as a retelling of The Little Mermaid, it seemed like it was a decidedly harder task to pull off than a show about a mermaid who lives “under the sea”. The young people in this production took everything they had and delivered to their audience an extraordinary gift.

The cast of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, a Young People's Theatre Workshop production running through June 5 at Players Club of Swarthmore.

Directed by Paul Kerrigan, Bob Moore, and Christopher Serpentine, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is the story of a young girl named Ti Moune (Daisy Getz) and her life on a Caribbean island with two very distinct classes (“We Dance”). Getz is an extremely effective Ti Moune, showing just the right amount of expression on her face, especially in her later dance scene. On this island, four gods (Gib Hartley, Anna Ferrigno, Emma Hartley, and Jack Stief) pull all of the strings. Ti Moune is raised by two old peasants (Hannah Wilcox and Jeremy Marcus), but wishes for a better life. She sees an aristocrat, Daniel (Luke Clements), driving past, and prays to the gods for her wish to be granted. Agwe (Gib Hartley), the water god, creates a rainstorm (“Rain”), causing Daniel’s car to crash. This number is a visual masterpiece, with the ensemble providing the “rain”. Ti Moune nurses him back to health and falls in love with him. The god of death, Papa Ge (Stief), demands Daniel’s life, but Ti Moune pledges her life instead. Daniel’s family returns to take him back, but Ti Moune insists on following him. She is helped by Asaka (Ferrigno), goddess of the earth, in a stunning way to end the first act (“Mama Will Provide”). At this point, the ensemble is dressed as frogs and birds to help Asaka lead Ti Moune to Daniel.

Upon arriving at the city, Erzulie (Emma Hartley), the goddess of love, works her magic to get Ti Moune and Daniel together (“The Human Heart”). The dancers during this scene, Annie Byers, Sally Race, and Ixchel Lemus-Bromley, provide a beautiful visual as Hartley sang of love. Daniel brings Ti Moune to a ball, where she is admired for her dancing (“Ti Moune’s Dance”). However, she is shocked when Andrea (Annie Byers) introduces herself as Daniel’s betrothed. Papa Ge reminds Ti Moune of her pledge, but asks her to consider killing Daniel to regain her life. Not being able to do this, she surrenders. Everyone weeps in the beautiful lament, “A Part of Us”. However, Ti Moune is reincarnated as a tree, and the production ends in “Why We Tell the Story”.

From the opening scene, I couldn’t take my eyes off the visuals. The cast is dressed in Caribbean bright colors, with the gods dressed just like water, earth, love, and death. The scenery stayed the same, but it was used to much effectiveness in each scene. It is amazing how a scene could have so many of the cast in it at once, but never look overwhelming. Everything was just as it should have been.

I wish I could name everyone in the ensemble, especially the children’s chorus. I was in awe of their singing and dancing abilities, and struck by the fact that they never once broke character. Even with so many family members there on opening night, they never let it affect their characters, and telling the story of Ti Moune became the most important thing. From the youngest member to the oldest member, each provided the audience with something on Friday night…a wonderful gift.

Book and Lyrics byLynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Paul Kerrigan, Bob Moore, and Christopher Serpentine
May 27 – June 5, 2011
Young People’s Theatre Workshop
at Players Club of Swarthmore
614 Fairview Road
Swarthmore PA 

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