“Once on This Island” may be the closest I have ever been to seeing an opera in-person. Even though it has two Tonys, a Laurence Olivier Award, a Theatre World Award, and was an honoree at the Drama Desk Awards (and don’t forget a Grammy nomination), this still did not feel like a traditional musical when I saw it at the Winspear Opera House (ironically), where it runs through December 22nd.
With a fresh take on the star-crossed lover/chasing your destiny story, Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter) is named so because she is an orphan who washed up on the shore of one of The French Antilles islands and is taken in by a local peasant couple. As she grows, the gods watch her development as she discovers a man whose car crashes in her area in Daniel (Tyler Hardwick). As she nurses him back to health, it is discovered that he is the son of a rich family vacationing on another island, and after he is returned to his family before he is completely healed, Ti Moune goes after him to reclaim the love that she knows they both feel only to find that their love may prove more complicated than she knows.
The entire vibe of this production is on full display even before the one-act show starts (this runs ninety minutes with no intermission). With the set being an area in the peasants’ village, audience members are able to purchase seats ON THE STAGE to watch it unfold, taking what “Once” does with it’s Irish pub to a whole different level. With a live band in the rafters that is accompanied by the cast itself at certain points, this is an immersive experience that truly captured me throughout. Carter plays Ti Moune with a wonderful childlike quality that is coupled with a powerhouse voice that resonated through the entire auditorium alongside strong performances from Phillip Boykin as her adopted father and Danielle Lee Greaves as her adopted father as well as Cassandra James as Erzulie, one of the gods that amongst themselves make a friendly wager as to how Ti Moune’s story twists and turns.
If there is one issue here, it may be in the presentation audibly. It isn’t that there were technical issues, but more that the accuracy of the portrayals made it difficult for me to make out each and every line sung. I was more than happy to sacrifice this for the strong performances and was still able to follow, but be aware of this going in.
All in all, I truly wish “Once on This Island” was given a bit of a longer run in order for more people to have the opportunity to see this production and experience this wonderful story, but given that this is a traveling production, it is my true hope that it will come back around again soon so that I can really dig into details that I may not have seen before. This is a great time to spend at the theatre no matter who you are, so check it out!