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‘Once on this Island’ tugs at the heart

Sun., July 24, 2011

With its vivid music, chants, dancing and Caribbean rhythms, “Once on this Island” is storytelling at its finest.

Under the direction of Roger Welch, the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s current production is a pleasing rendition of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s popular Broadway show.

Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and the novel “My Love, My Love: The Peasant Girl,” written by Trinidadian-American author Rosa Guy, the show tells the story of Ti Moune, an orphan girl who rescues and falls in love with the handsome Daniel Beauxhomme, the son of a wealthy French landowner on an island firmly divided by race and class.

Oyoyo Bonner magnificently conveys Ti Moune’s innocence, beauty, virtue and unearthly love as she selflessly promises her own life to Papa Ge, demon of death, diabolically portrayed by Tyler Andrew Jones, in order to save Daniel (Gabe Lawson).

In addition to her deft vocal ability, apparent throughout the show, Bonner performs a crowd-pleasing dance solo during the aristocratic ball scene, moving furiously to the explosive rhythm of African drumbeats. And she presents a vulnerable character that is able to pull at the audience’s heartstrings when she discovers Daniel’s intentions to marry Andrea Deveraux (Keyonna Knight) in order to fulfill societal and family expectations.

The show also has a dynamic supporting cast who play multiple roles as storytellers, gods and village people. In the number “Pray,” the cast makes the complex rounds of vocal harmonizing seem effortless; in “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” they carry out Christopher Moll’s brilliant choreography with aristocratic flair.

In addition to being adorable, Sara Puckett – the only child actor in the show – plays the role of Little Ti Moune with grace and delight. In “We Dance,” Julianne R. Johnson-Weiss as Mama Euralie hits a high note powerful enough to shake the palm trees; in “Mama Will Provide,” Sara Russell allows her golden voice to gleam as Asaka, Mother of the Earth. Bonner’s sister, Clotile Bonner, gives a notable performance as the fan-fluttering Erzulie, Goddess of Love.

Musical director Chris Thompson skillfully re-creates Flaherty’s lively soundtrack of percussion instruments, island melodies and Baroque music.

Michael McGiveney’s set design is artful and inviting. He creates a lush tropical rain forest graced with tangerine sunlight and warm starry nights, an enchanting storytelling campfire, and cleverly incorporates a single sheet of sheer fabric to simulate the large ocean waters that carry Little Ti Moune away during the storm.

The set is complemented by Joel Williamson’s lighting design of pastel hues and realistic lightning flashes, and vibrant costumes by Jessica Ray.

Because it is made up almost entirely of music, the pace of the show is sped up by its lack of dialogue, often hindering the audience from fully grasping what is happening in certain scenes.

Although a bit somber at times – the play is definitely not a comedy – the production delivers a stimulating and heartwarming story of tragedy, hope and love.

“Once on This Island,” reviewed Thursday night at Boswell Hall, North Idaho College, continues through July 31. For tickets, call (208) 769-7780.

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