'Once On This Island' is a Caribbean cornucopia of theatricality

  • Asaka (Kyle Ramar Freeman) gives advice to Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter) in the national tour of the musical "Once On This Island." The Tony Award-winning 2017 Broadway revival continues at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 2.

    Asaka (Kyle Ramar Freeman) gives advice to Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter) in the national tour of the musical "Once On This Island." The Tony Award-winning 2017 Broadway revival continues at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 2. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

 
 
Updated 1/23/2020 9:50 AM

"Once On This Island" -- ★ ★ ★

You can get a sense of the intimate theatrical magic that must have sprung from director Michael Arden's 2017 Broadway revival of the 1990 musical "Once On This Island."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Some of that intimacy has likely gone missing in Arden's reconfigured touring version now at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. Yet there's still plenty of wonderment and heartbreaking woe to be had.

On Broadway, Arden had the architectural luxury of staging "Once On This Island" in the round within the cozy 840-seat Circle in the Square Theatre. The Tony Award-winning revival notably featured onstage sand, rain effects and even live chickens and a goat.

Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter), center, dances with abandon at the ball in "Once On This Island," now playing Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre.
Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter), center, dances with abandon at the ball in "Once On This Island," now playing Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. - Courtesy of Joan Marcus

There's no livestock in this staging, but Arden and his great design team have worked to find ways to recapture an enveloping storytelling environment. There's still lots of sand and water, but now there's some onstage audience seating, too.

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Arden's touring take on "Once On This Island" truly feels like you're gathered around a campfire for an enriching story. And it's a tale that comes with an uncomfortable framework hinting at climate change.

Dan Laffrey's deliberately grubby set design is full of storm debris and framed by plastic sheeting. Though the musical is officially set on an island in the French Antilles, the visuals bring to mind recent broadcast images of earthquake or storm-hit Haiti, Puerto Rico or the Bahamas.

As a temporary escape during the rebuilding, a group of storytellers and musicians gather to share a Caribbean fairy tale spin on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." But instead of a fantasy water creature trying to be a part of the human world, "Once On This Island" shows an orphaned peasant girl named Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter) being separated from her love by the real-world divisions of class and race.

Danielle Lee Greaves stars as Mama Euralie and Phillip Boykin plays Tonton Julian in the national tour of "Once On This Island" at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre.
Danielle Lee Greaves stars as Mama Euralie and Phillip Boykin plays Tonton Julian in the national tour of "Once On This Island" at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. - Courtesy of Joan Marcus
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Yet there are still lots of fantastical elements, particularly with the creative costumes of Clint Ramos and the saturated color by lighting design team Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer.

Island deities devoted to the earth (Kyle Ramar Freeman as Asaka), water (Jahmaul Bakare as Ague), love (Cassondra James as Erzulie) and death (Tamyra Gray as Papa Ge) all help or hinder Ti Moune's quest to win over the heart of the wealthy, light-skinned Daniel (Tyler Hardwick).

On the human level, there are also great performances from Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian and Danielle Lee Greaves as Mama Euralie. They're Ti Moune's protective adoptive parents, and they act with heavy hearts as they see her grow up and leave home to pursue her destiny.

There isn't a weak link in the performing ensemble. The cast all powerfully (and sometimes operatically) sing the daylights out of the infectiously catchy score by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens.

The love goddess Erzulie (Cassondra James), left, looks on as Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter) helps Daniel (Tyler Hardwick) recover in "Once On This Island," which runs through Sunday, Feb. 2, at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre.
The love goddess Erzulie (Cassondra James), left, looks on as Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter) helps Daniel (Tyler Hardwick) recover in "Once On This Island," which runs through Sunday, Feb. 2, at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. - Courtesy of Joan Marcus

The performers also dance up a storm showing off Camille A. Brown's gyrating choreography -- particularly in the climactic ball scene where Ti Moune taps everyone into their tribal African roots.

And then there's the beautifully simple complexity of Arden's staging. What looks like trash theatrically transforms to suggest a number of things from a speeding car to the gates of a fancy hotel.

Though some raised on Disney versions of fairy tales may find the ending unsatisfactory, "Once On This Island" does emphasize the power of love to bring about change. And Arden's production also amazes with its transporting storytelling skills.

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Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also Sunday, Jan. 26), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (also Wednesday, Jan. 29); through Feb. 2

Tickets: $21.50-$96; $158 premium seating

Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking

Rating: For preteens or older; some mild sensuality

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