Review: 'Once On This Island' at Connecticut Theatre Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecitict Critic

New Britain, CT - Duane Campbell is the able director of ‘Once On This Island’ at Connecticut Theatre Company in New Britain. The musical with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty (‘Ragtime,’ ‘Seussical,’ ‘Anastasia’) is based upon the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy and is one that I never tire of seeing. I look forward to how the director will envision the challenging bits of the action; each one puts their stamp on their production.

Mr. Campbell highlights the themes of family and cultural traditions that are intertwined with the arts and storytelling in general. “Music and theatre help in how these traditions are passed down from generation to generation. The arts make all cultures accessible and serve a great purpose in not only entertaining but educating us all. It is my firm belief that we can learn many things about ourselves from the stories of others... And that is why we tell the story.”

This production tells the story in a beautiful way, both visually and musically. The director was able to cast the show with people of color as the peasants and the four gods, while lighter-skinned actors portray the storytellers and the members of the upper class. I learned that the original Broadway cast of ‘Once On This Island’ was chosen along racial lines with darker-skinned actors portraying the peasants and lighter-skinned actors portraying the upper-class landowners. In the script, the writers provide small line changes that can be used to remove references to skin color to accommodate multi-ethnic productions, while preserving the storyline about differences between the upper and lower classes. As best I can recall, the other productions I have seen must have used the line changes, so I noticed the difference in this production. Both work well in my opinion.

Kristen Norris’ choreography adds to the visual beauty and authenticity, and the set designed by the director and Doug McCarthy sets the stage well for the island tale. But the real stars of the technical aspects are the glorious costumes designed by Rose Maselli Morse and Pat O’Neill. The peasants wore beautifully colored pieces, while all the storytellers/upper class members were decked out in white with aqua accents. It was reminiscent of the distinct looks of the three classes in ‘Ragtime’ and for me enhanced the staging. The gods wore ensembles that clearly indicated their domain but were quite unique in design. Taken together, this cast was a delight for the eyes of the audience.

Of course the talent of the cast members made the production even more effective. UCONN graduate Tiffany Vinters gave a heartfelt performance as Ti Moune. Zachary Taylor, a recent graduate of the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in NYC, sang very well in the role of her beloved Daniel. Candace Jelks had a powerhouse voice as she sang the songs of Mama Euralie and Steffon Sampson was just as good as her husband, Tonton Julian.

The quartet of island gods included Khadija Ansari as Asaka, Garth West in blue as Agwe, Gia Wright as the beautiful god of love Erzulie and Everton Ricketts (in his CTC debut) as a more island, but no less menacing god of death, Papa Ge. All of the them sang well as they directed the action of the story.

Nine-year-old Savannah Rose Hayes did well as Young Ti Moune/Little Girl and Sebastian Munera played both Young Daniel and Daniel’s Son at the end of the story. David Nunner played Armand and Kristen was a standout in the role of David’s betrothed, Andrea.

The storyteller ensemble included the talents of Patrick Beebe, Jasmine Clemons, Leah Gaffney, Bobby Hannafey, Charles Inyang, Cassandra O’Neill, Iesha M. Rose, Hannah Rubitz, Leondra Smith-West, Sarah Stanford, Renee Sutherland, Robert J. Williams and choreography intern Kristi Yurko. There were some sound issues that randomly affected many of the actors; luckily the theater is not that big. 

Michael Gowdy served as musical director and led the small onstage orchestra that was just enough.  I really liked the staging of “Mama Will Provide” featuring mother of the earth Asaka and the storytellers as animals. I noticed that the aqua color of the upper class was nicely pulled into the netting that covered Daniel’s bed at the hotel. Ms. Wright had her chance to shine in her duet with Mr. West on “The Human Heart” and the rousing “Why We Tell the Story” was a memorable finale. 

‘Once On This Island’ continues at Connecticut Theatre Company through July 10 and evening performances begin at 7:00pm.

Photos by Vivian Boucher for Connecticut Theatre Company