Thursday, January 30, 2020

Review of Once On This Island (Broadway in Chicago)

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Once On This Island. The book and lyrics were by Lynn Ahrens based on the novel "My Love, My Love" by Rosa Guy. The music was by Stephen Flaherty. The choreographer was Camille A. Brown, the music director was Chris Fenwick, and the director was Michael Arden. It is the story of Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter), a girl orphaned during a storm who is raised by Mama Euralie (Danielle Lee Greaves) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin), an older couple who find her. As a teenager, she rescues Daniel (Tyler Hardwick), a young man who gets in a car crash near her village. She magically heals him and then follows him back to the city where he lives as a member of the ruling class on the island. She stays with him as his lover, but soon discovers that she has not fully understood their relationship. It is about belief, community storytelling, and sacrificial love. This musical has gorgeous performances, fun songs, and a vibrant look.

I don't feel like the songs in this musical are made to be remembered individually. I feel like all the songs together make an intriguing story that is great to listen to. The songs convey the atmosphere so well; they convey the love that is on this island. I hardly ever felt the song was changing to another song; I just was following the story and taking in the music as a vessel for it. A few of the songs that stood out to me the most were "Waiting for Life," "Rain," and "Mama Will Provide." They moved from telling an overall story to being character driven. "Waiting for Life" is one of the best what-I-want songs I've heard. It is so specific to exactly what Ti Moune wants, and I feel like it fits her personality very well. It trampolines her into the rest of her life because all she wants is to get in a car and drive away and feel free and fall in love. But once she starts to fall in love she realizes it is not freedom at all because there are sacrifices she feels obligated to make because of her devotion.

I think the song "Rain" is a lot more character-driven than it may at first appear because it is
the water god Agwe (Jahmaul Bakare) trying to prove his point that love is stronger than death. It isn't about him, which is unusual for a god because when I think of gods I think of entities who think they are better than everyone else. I think it is interesting that this god's first song is motivated by his own gain but is focused on other people as well and how people relate to each other. These gods are very fixated on one person, Ti Moune, and have actually grown to care about her. "Mama Will Provide" shows that very clearly. Asaka (Kyle Ramar Freeman), mother earth, sings to Ti Moune about how she wants her to succeed while the islanders and other gods dance around her. I thought it was a really nice way of showing how the gods, except for death demon Papa Ge (Tamyra Gray), that is, Agwe, Asaka, and Erzulie (Cassondra James) care about Ti Moune and all know their place in the world and the limits of their power and how they work together to make life. Death is shown not only as a cruel ending, but something that can lead to beautiful things like the story. I think Papa Ge realizes that the gods care about Ti Moune and instead of being a demon of death, Papa Ge become more like the gods. Death's importance is not the aspect of cruelty but the aspect of endings bringing new beginnings. Death is an important part of life, and our lives would be very different if it didn't exist. I think it is an interesting way to portray death, showing it in the traditional scary light and then, through character development, showing it as a natural, beautiful part of life.

I really like this musical, but I feel like the message that the story within the musical is telling is disturbing. Ti Moune gives up her entire life for a man and dies waiting for him, even though he has explicitly rejected her. I thought the song "Some Girls" was actually very messed up because Daniel sings about how there are different girls essentially for different services. He is not willing to give up anything for love; love is supposed to serve him. Sacrifice seems to be a requirement for women in love, but not for men. This story romanticizes the idea of not just being in love but being a victim of love. This is a dangerous idea because it shows women that it is okay for them to put themselves last even to the point of their own destruction. I thought that the child actor who played the Little Girl (Mimi Crossland) was very talented and fun to watch as she was told the story, but it made me sad to think of a little girl making the same decisions as Ti Moune and thinking of them as expected of her. It seems like the gods that love Ti Moune are no match for the patriarchy, which is very depressing to think about.

People who would like this show are people who like beautiful storytelling through music, talented performers, and demon character development. I think this is a mesmerizing show. It has so many interesting elements--dance, music, storytelling, costume, and set--that made the island seem magical and real. It made me think a lot and I also enjoyed it. I had a blast and it made me feel more intensely than I expected.

Photos: Joan Marcus

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