Review: Once On This Island (Acting Up Stage Company / Obsidian Theatre Company)

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Toronto’s Acting Up Stage & Obsidian Theatre present the musical Once on This Island

Following their successful collaboration on Caroline, or Change last year, two of Toronto’s leading theatre companies; Acting Up Stage and Obsidian Theatre, reunite for another production; Once On This Island. The musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (the team behind the hit Broadway musical Ragtime) is a Romeo and Juliet story with an island twist, overlaid with the mysticism of the Caribbean.

Based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island is set in the French Antilles and tells the story of a dark-skinned peasant girl named Ti Moune who falls in love with a wealthy light-skinned grande homme. The story explores the issues of Shadeism and classism and touches on the broader theme of colonialism.

First off, I had some issues with the material; while it’s based on a novel by a Caribbean-American author, the musical is filtered through a book writer and composer’s lens that’s upper-class, Western and white to the point where I thought it lost a lot of the authenticity of the original voice. As a result, the tone of the entire piece feels a bit off. The musical sometimes strays a little too close to the territory of exoticism for my liking.

All reservations about the material aside, this is an incredible production featuring an immensely talented cast and I just want to shower them with praise.

Jewelle Blackman is radiant in the lead role; her Ti Moune is bright and expressive but well grounded. Blackman is careful never take the Ti Moune over-the-top and makes a character who could easily be a caricature believable and sympathetic.

Blackman’s command of her character is matched by Arlene Duncan as Mama Eurelie, Tom Pickett as Tonton Julian, Ti Moune’s adopted parents. Individually all three actors shine but their onstage relationship with each other forms the emotional backbone of the piece. The number where Ti Moune pleads with her adoptive parents to leave to pursue the boy of her dreams knowing full well she might never see them again is absolutely heart-wrenching.

The leads are backed by an ensemble packed with powerhouse vocalists, they’re a thrill to watch and a joy to listen to.

The show also features a superb production design. Michael Gianfrancesco’s simple but effective set design is surrounded by the audience on three sides. Marc Kimelman’s Caribbean-inspired choreography fills the large space nicely throughout the show. Musical Director Lily Ling’s arrangements succeed at making a score that could easily feel dated sound fresh and vibrant.

After seeing this production I continue to be amazed at the level of musical theatre talent we have in this city. The cast and designers are better than the material they were given to work with for Once On This Island but the fact that they were able to successfully elevate that material is a testament to their level of talent.

Details:

  • Once On This Island is playing at the Daniels Spectrum, Ada Slaight Hall (2585 Dundas Street East) until February 9, 2014
  • Shows run Tuesday-Saturday, 8PM; Saturday and Sunday, 2PM
  • Tickets $35.00 to $50.00 ($10 off for students and arts workers)
  • Tickets are available by phone 1-800-838-3006 or visit www.actingupstage.com

Photo of Alana Hibbert, Daren A. Herbert, Nichola Lawrence, Jewelle Blackman and Jivaro Smith by Joanna Akyol

6 thoughts on “Review: Once On This Island (Acting Up Stage Company / Obsidian Theatre Company)”

    1. Alright, point taken. The omission was unintentional but this production was of course directed by the incomparable Nigel Shawn Williams. 😛

  1. I spoke with the lyricist, Stephen Flaherty, about Once on this Island many moons ago. They did a workshop of it with the author (Rosa Guy) of the original book, My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl, upon which the musical was based. At the end of the workshop performance, Rosa Guy, in the presence of the friends she invited, stood up and was so proud of the work that Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty did. Ahrens and Flaherty had actually changed the ending of the story, but Rosa Guy still loved it. So, I hope this allays your issues of the story being told through the “lens that’s upper-class, Western and white.’ Rosa Guy herself loved the show, and Ahrens and Flaherty are hard-working people in the music theatre industry, regardless of their up-bringing and race. If you had not known who Ahrens and Flaherty were in terms of their background, I wonder if your lens for the show would have given you a different outlook.

  2. I absolutely loved Jewelle Blackman in the role. She was stunning, not to mention the fact that I totally believed her in the role. The Gods were also fantastic. All in all, I am not a huge fan of the play. It was quite simple and not so exciting, but I do appreciate the singing and the dancing performed.

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