Ordway’s “Once On This Island” Is An Elemental Joy To Witness

Once on This Island. Photo by Joan Marcus
Once on This Island. Photo by Joan Marcus

Once on This Island. Photo by Joan Marcus

Two years ago, I was on a trip in New York City and was gifted tickets to the Broadway revival of Once On This Island. It was a magical night full of dancing, singing and laughs. Now two years later, the show is on a national tour and is currently playing at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts where I got to see it again; however, this one was a little different.

Once On This Island is a universal story of love, hope and commitment. Ti Moune is a young peasant girl who is in search of her place in the world. After saving a young man, from the rich side of the island, from death, she ventures out across the island to reunite with him, with the Gods help. Her incredible journey is told right before our eyes in a unique form of storytelling.

While the story is the same, the way it’s told is different with this tour. When this revival was on Broadway, it played at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Based on the name of the theatre, you can guess that the staging was in the round. This tour is in a proscenium stage with elements of in the round as some audience members are on stage. While I don’t want to compare the two productions, as both of them are truly beautiful, I can say that it works better in the round. There is so much detail in the set, the costumes and story that it’s received better up close. 

That being said, it’s still an incredibly visual production no matter where you’re sitting. Dane Laffrey, who is the scenic designer, has adapted the set for the proscenium stage and taken advantage of things that the Broadway design can’t. For example, the Ordway has height compared to the Circle in the Square Theatre. It helped make the island feel more vast and large, which in turn makes Ti Moune’s journey feel more impressive. I would have liked to see the height used more by the actors. There is a structure of an abandoned semi-truck that is used often, though I wish there were other moments that the tall structures were used. 

Being on a tropical island, you’d think color would be a main detail in this show and it is. Costume Designer Clint Ramos and Lighting Designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer combine plenty of bright colors to give an explosion of nature on stage. The costumes feel authentic and creative. 

I’ve never seen a harder working ensemble in a show before, period. This nimble group is front and center in terms of helping push the story along through narrative, incredible singing, and exciting choreography. At times they are swiftly taking set pieces on and off to the point where I hardly even noticed they were there. They truly are phenomenal and the backbone of this production. 

The four Gods all harmoniously together and individually give exceptional performances. Jahmaul Bakare plays Agwe and has a tender and smooth baritone voice. Tamyra Gray plays Papa Ge and is creepy but logical, making her one of the most important Gods in this story by posing the question, “Can love overcome death?”

Cassondra James truly has God-like powers in her singing as she plays Erzulie. Something came over the whole audience during her song “The Human Heart.” It was almost like she herself brought a sense of calmness to everyone. Kyle Ramar Freeman plays Asaka and does so with incredible control of his voice in “Mama Will Provide,” my favorite song in the show. Freeman also provides some of the most comedic moments throughout the show with impeccable timing. 

The decision to have each physical representation of the Gods in a form of an element on stage was creative. There was actual water on stage to represent Agwe, Fire which loosely can represent the God of death, Papa Ge. There is also sand to represent mother earth Asaka and the actors and characters themselves represent love which Erzulie is the Goddess of. 

Courtnee Carter plays the lead Ti Moune with grace, patience and compassion. Carter has one of those voices that is so pure as can sustain a note without having to rely on vibrato. Her performance is truly powerful to watch.

Once On This Island is a show that balances the line of all the emotions one may feel when watching a live performance. It’s energetic, fun, hopeful, sad and inspiring all at the same time. The cast, along with the various technical elements, truly transports us from the cold and dreary land of Minnesota during the winter into a tropical island where birds sing, the Gods watch over us and love can be found right around the corner.

Once On This Island
Through Feb. 9
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
345 Washington St., St. Paul

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