A flicker across the face of Tonton Julian (Berwick Haynes) marks the astonishment reserved for a parent whose offspring is making unexpected sense. He hides it quickly, only to do a double take several seconds later. Befuddled, a tremble just graces his bottom lip in response to an unwanted realization. You could easily miss these few seconds during the song “Ti Moune,” but they provide the pivot of the story, in which Ti Moune (Salisha Thomas) is transformed from “One Small Girl” into a tree.
Smart choreography, brilliantly executed, takes you to the jewel of the Antilles, where class tensions are as extreme as the tropical weather.
“Once on this Island” opens with a crack of lightning, draws you in with the soulful voice of Mama Euralie (Dawn L. Troupe), increases your agitation during the heavy storms, then brings you back in where the energy refocuses to lift the audience with the exuberant “We Dance.” These first two minutes open the tropical world, and begin an excursion through the dualities of rich and poor, dark and darker, youth and adulthood, life and death.
However, that characterization is grossly incomplete. Most than anything else, this high energy TheatreWorks production pulsates to a French Caribbean beat, radiating life force. Smart choreography (Gerry McIntyre), brilliantly executed, takes you to the jewel of the Antilles, where class tensions are as extreme as the tropical weather.
An ensemble too big to name gave the feel of a large-cast musical in which dancers move seamlessly together. Dawn L. Troupe, as Mama Euralie, and Berwick Haynes, as Tonton Julian, brought a depth of character to their roles that’s as rich as their respective voices. The 500-watt smile of Salisha Thomas energized the demanding role of Ti Moune. Lastly, Max Kumangai is a deliciously malignant Papa Ge, Demon of Death.
Some say that “Once on this Island” is a kid’s show. However don’t tell that to all those adults who were audibly sniffing and wiping back tears during “A Part of Us.” TheatreWorks has a knack of finding cross-over shows, like the musical “Little Women” and the educational “Silent Sky” that can be marketed for class trips without losing the adult audience. Almost every time I’m on the verge of taking a pass when a TheatreWorks is targeted at the kid crew, I come back pleasantly surprised. This TheatreWorks production of “Once on this Island,” which opened on Saturday, was a comparable eye opener.
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Some say that “Once on this Island” is a kid’s show because it’s about the power of first love and changing from a child to an adult. However, moments like Ton-ton’s bafflement when he recognizes the powerful forces acting on Ti Moune make this an adult show as well. In the face of such helpless bafflement, we all need to dance to stay alive – and the calypso rhythms of “Once on this Island” will open you up to do just that.