Love, power and community reign supreme in the Tony Award-winning musical Once on This Island, currently onstage at the Playhouse in the Park’s Marx Theatre. Set in the present-day Caribbean French Antilles, this 85-minute production spins the enchanting story of a young peasant girl, Ti Moune, on a quest for love as four competing gods use their forces to determine her fate.
The musical, based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl (a retelling of classic folktale The Little Mermaid), opens on the island as a storm brews. There are two entirely different worlds at play: the peasants and the privileged, better known as the haves and the have nots. At the center is Ti Moune (Lauren Chanel), a sweet, curious and adventurous orphan who is taken in by a peasant couple after the storm destroys her community. As she grows older, they shower her with love and teach her the principles of faith and community, which eventually fuel her relentless pursuit and not-so-realistic dream of marrying Daniel Beauxhomme, a suitor from a prestigious family.
In one moment, she asks the gods — Agwe, God of Water; Asaka, Mother of Earth; and Papa Ge, Demon of Death; and Erizulie, Goddess of Love — why they spared her from the storm only for her to lead such a mundane existence. In her pleas for a more exciting life, the gods deliver.
What follows is infatuation, classism, heartbreak and betrayal. Though Ti Moune’s wonder and innocence are eventually lost, she never gives up hope. Chanel’s doe-eyed and sassy portrayal of the orphaned girl is one that she delivers with ease. Her beautiful renditions of songs “Waiting for Life” and “Pray” exhibit her high vocal range. And the tenderness in which she displays Ti Moune’s disappointment and ultimate fate leaves one to reflect about the importance of good life choices.
The play’s strength and uniqueness centers around vibrant and joyous musical numbers penned by the songwriting duo Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The remarkable cast, many making their debut at the Playhouse, deliver each number with voices gifted from the heavens. This cast could cut a soundtrack recording today and I would be the first to download and stream it a million times.
Robert Barry Fleming’s dual role as director and choreographer shines in the cast’s hip-shaking and authentic moves. Infused with rhythm and soul, Andrew Smithson’s musical direction is felt in every drum beat and bass. On a midsize stage stacked with props, the cast delivers these moments with impressive ability.
Bre Jackson as Asaka gives a stellar debut on the Playhouse in the Park stage, laying everything on the floor with smooth flavor and attitude. With sass in her stride, her rendition of “Mama Will Provide” is a true reflection of an island woman — confident, bold and vivacious.
As the opener of Playhouse’s 60th-anniversary season, Once on This Island is suitable for all audiences as it sheds light on poverty, classism and the challenges of parenthood. The plight of the island’s impoverished is shown on the set with thin American Red Cross-blanketed cots and knickknacks, indicating that life has not been kind to the peasants as they constantly battle storms. Yet together they rebuild a community where love and happiness are the foundation. Classism goes hand in hand with this ideology where “like” individuals are encouraged to marry or stay within their own in an effort to maintain order.
Mama Euralie (Rheaume Crenshaw) and Tonton Julian’s (Kenneth Robinson) struggle as parents who are concerned about their adopted child’s ambitious, lofty dreams are all too familiar as they realize that they cannot shield Ti Moune from the realities of the world forever.
The finale “Why We Tell The Story” closes with a sense of hope that, despite differences, stories can still bring people together. In a display of solidarity, the Playhouse has partnered with the Greater Cincinnati-Dayton Region American Red Cross to donate funds to those in the Bahamas impacted by Hurricane Dorian — a cause that falls in line with Once on This Island’s ultimate message of shared community. It’s an absolute must-see.
Once on This Island runs through Oct. 6 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. For more information and tickets, visit cincyplay.com.