The production of “Once on this Island” at Shea’s 710 Main is sensational. Joyful and fresh, with direction and choreography by Naila Ansari, and musical direction by Karen Saxon, every number both stands alone and serves to accelerate the momentum and tension of the passionate story.
And what a story! This is, certainly, one of the most endearing tragedies ever staged. With book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, “Once on this Island” tells the tale of Ti Moune, a peasant girl living in the French Antilles, played by Zhanna Reed. She falls in love with Daniel, a rich boy from the other side of the island played by Rafael Rodriguez. The action is engineered by a group of Caribbean gods: Asaka, Mother of the Earth played by Latosha Jennings; Agwé, god of Water, played by Marcus J. Paige; Erzulie, goddess of Love, played by Anita Frasier; and Papa Ge, demon of Death, played by Darrick Penny.
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Ti Moune makes deal with Papa Ge, to save Daniel’s life after he speeds his car into an accident.
The production, with set designed by John Purcell, and costumes by Phylicia Dove of Black Monarchy fashions, looks gorgeous. Purcell provides an open expanse with simplified set pieces, giving the impression that the story is being told on a tropical beach. Dove’s colorful clothes define the characters – including gods – and the Caribbean setting beautifully. She scores a particularly dramatic triumph when Ti Moune makes an entrance at a grand party, gliding onto the stage like a Caribbean Cinderella. Lighting by Aja Jackson amplifies the emotion of the drama, and reinforces its pace, exquisitely. Sound design by Nick Quinn expertly fills out the reality of this fantasy landscape, often with great wit.
This is a production without a weak link.
Reed is divine as Ti Moune. Her graceful and regal presence explodes with pure joy when she flashes her spectacular smile. She sings beautifully. She dances beautifully. There is a thrilling chemistry between her and Rodriguez. Indeed, the two convince us that we are seeing true and invincible love blooming before us – an illusion augmented by moments of intimacy, staged by Thembi Duncan. Notice the eroticism evoked by the simple gesture of his fingers stroking her neck. Brace yourself, however, you’re being set up for a fall.
Rodriguez deftly walks the line of his all too uncomplicated character with total charm. As Daniel, he convinces us, as easily as he convinces Ti Moune, that he is imbued with fine qualities.
The show is given a loving anchor in the characters of Ti Moune’s adoptive parents, Mama Euralie (played by Danielle Green), and TonTon (George Brown). Each gives a compelling performance, and a lesson in what committed love looks like.
Among the ensemble players, Melinda Capeles is featured with particular prominence and makes a striking impression. Often speaking in American sign language, she is called upon to serve a narrative function. She also claims a memorable moment as Andrea, the character who unkindly brings Ti-Moune back to earth with the shock of reality.
As the quartet of gods, Jennings, Paige, Frasier and Penny bring vivid personality and individuality to their characters. Penny gets particular mileage out of the humorous side of Papa Ge, demon of Death. Each gets to showcase a strong singing voice.
Two young girls are given the chance to steal a little bit of the show for themselves. Shylah Douglas as Little Ti Moune, and Samyah Douglas as Little Girl charm their way into our hearts with impressively professional performances.
Ensemble members Cecelia Monica-Lyn Barron, Enoch Cray, Alex Garcia and Anika Pace energetically embody multiple characters and bring Ansari’s superior choreography to life.
The voices soar, but as importantly, with Karen Saxon at the piano, the band sounds terrific and oh, so Caribbean, with Joey Gonzalez on auxiliary percussion, Michelle Thomas on keyboard, Preston Brown on drums, and Anthony Cummings on bass.
For a fundamentally sad story, “Once on this Island” produces a remarkable surge of joy. This is Shea’s first foray into producing its own show. Typically, Shea's books touring shows, presents rentals and participates in co-productions. I must say, the result of this debut effort is highly satisfying.
"Once on This Island"
4 stars (out of 4)
Presented through Oct. 2 by Shea’s 710 Main at 710 Main St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $49.25-$55.25 (sheas.org, 716-847-1410).