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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Once On This Island
Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music
Review by Scott Cain | Season Schedule

The Cast
Photo by Mark Lyons
While the musicals presented by the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) are consistently of excellent quality, it's especially noteworthy when they produce a show written by one of their own graduates. Their moving production of the unique Once On This Island showcases an ethnically diverse and talented cast, along with worthwhile creativity in its execution.

Based on the novel "My Love, My Love" by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island begins during an impending storm, as those escaping the weather share a Caribbean fairy tale. They convey the story of Ti Moune, a poor peasant girl who falls in love with a wealthy boy. She is sent on a journey by the gods of her island to test the strength of love in the face of prejudice. The original production premiered in 1990, first Off-Broadway, followed by a Broadway run.

Once On This Island is the product of the writing team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, Seussical, Anastasia). The book by Ms. Ahrens incorporates a rich tapestry of storytelling and theatrical devices in conveying this stylized folk tale. With socially significant issues, endearing yet well-rounded characters, and universal themes including acceptance, love, sacrifice and family, Once On This Island is engaging and accessible for theatergoers.

The score is likewise accomplished and praiseworthy. The music by Stephen Flaherty, a 1982 graduate of CCM, is highly melodic, aptly delicate, and colorful in its variety and cultural influences. The lyrics by Ms. Ahrens are simple and straightforward, yet poetic and appropriately precise in their content. Ballads such as "The Human Heart" and "Some Girls" are touching, while "Mama Will Provide," is a wonderfully rousing fantasy number. The opening pieces, "We Dance" and "One Small Girl," set the story in motion using narrative songs, and the closing "A Part of Us" and "Why We Tell The Story" are emotional and uplifting.

Once On This Island is a show that allows for a lot of inventiveness in how it's presented. In recent years, there was a large-scale production of the show at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, as well as a stop in Dayton of the national tour of the Broadway revival of the musical. For CCM, director Torie Wiggins, an Alumni Guest Artist, supplied many imaginative staging moments and choices, and conveyed the proper tone for the piece. The framework of having students from both a private school and a public school coming together to escape a rain storm, and then present the tale as it is read from a book, was smart and mirrored the class separation found in the inner story.

A few opportunities to clarify the story and to take cues from the lyrics were missed in the blocking, but it was an overall strong concept and presentation. The active choreography by Julie Schick was vibrant and well-suited to the setting, and Casey Reed led a talented six-piece band.

The four island gods are integral to the story, and were wonderfully portrayed by Essence Bell (a fierce Agwe), Sean Polk II (a menacing, yet playful Papa Ge), Annalise Prentiss (a regal and tender Erzulie), and Julia Schick (a fun and joyous Asaka). The acting choices of Prentiss and vocals of Schick were especially praiseworthy. Erin Morton was an earnest Ti Moune, and showed off an impressive belt with the potent "Waiting For Life." Indya Lincicome and Anargha Pal clearly conveyed the appropriate love, exasperation, and sacrificial commitment as Ti Moune's adoptive parents.

Peter Neureuther (Daniel) and Kristen Das (Andrea) captured the more refined mannerisms of the wealthy islanders appropriately, and made the most of their material. Ranease Brown (Storyteller) shone as the primary narrator of the piece. The remaining cast members did a very good job in support, and the choral work of the cast was noteworthy.

Kudos to CCM for the diverse casting of the production, populated almost exclusively by people of color, as it is typically done for professional productions, but rarely in collegiate or high school stagings.

The attractive unit set by Mark Halpin incorporated elements representing the four gods and had a number of functional pieces. It's too bad something better couldn't have been created to represent the tree that is so pivotal to the plot as compared to the scaffolding that was used. The costumes by Erin Donnelly fit the duality of the framework and inner story well but were not ideal for a few characters. The lighting by Jessica Ann Drayton was varied, with many well-suited storm effects.

Once On This Island contains many unexpected elements and is unique and varied in the story and in how it's told. CCM's first-rate cast and a solid staging effectively showcased this superb score and heartbreaking yet hopeful story.

Once On This Island ran from March 28 - 30, 2023, at CCM, Patricia Corbett Theater, 290 CCM Blvd, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information for upcoming events, please call 513-556-4183 or visit