Those who’ve seen Frozen one too many times and are ready to Let It Go, would do well to head to the Caribbean via Olney Theatre’s heat-drenched musical Once on This Island. While not solely aimed at children, the show packs enough high-energy and talent to captivate older kids. Kids under 10 might enjoy the spectacle but not the slightly complicated plot brushing on mature topics and the run time of 90 minutes (no intermission).
Set on a fictitious island (modeled on Haiti), the show opens at a hurricane shelter. When a child becomes frightened during the storm, the adults at the shelter act out a story to calm her. The story tells of Ti Moune, a peasant girl who was saved by the gods during a flood. As an adult, Ti Moune finds an upper-class “grand homme” named Daniel after he’s in a car accident. She tries to nurse him back to health, but the Demon of Death comes to claim him.
Ti Moune asks him to take her instead of Daniel, and he agrees. Daniel recovers and is taken back to the luxury hotel where he lives. Ti Moune makes the trip to the hotel, finds Daniel, and convinces him to love her. In her mind, they will get married, but turns out he already has an arranged bride. The Demon of Death comes to take Ti Moune but says that if she kills Daniel, he will spare her. Daniel awakens to find Ti Moune standing over him with a knife, but she decides not to kill him. So she dies instead and comes back as a tree.
The musical numbers pretty much alternate between rousing, highly-choreographed ensemble showstoppers and slower solos with lots of sappiness (that’s when my 8-year-old’s fidgeting kicked in). In the cast of 13, there’s an enormous amount of talent. I felt like we were seeing the show on Broadway (where it’s been staged before), not a local production. The set and costumes are creative and ever changing.
The props drew a few chuckles, especially the skateboard outfitted with flashlights and tilted around by an actor to simulate driving a car. About halfway through the show, there is a shadow puppet scene giving a history lesson about Haiti. While it included humorous touches, the information was presented so quickly, it was tough to follow.
At the performance we attended, the audience was predominantly adults sans children. The theater recommends the show for ages 5 and older. I was glad I didn’t bring my 4-and-a-half-year-old — I don’t think he would have lasted for the whole show. Sensitive kids might be frightened by some of the storm scenes, by some of the scenes with the gods and demon, and by the scene where Ti Moune stands over Daniel with a knife.
The passion between Ti Moune and Daniel felt a bit mature for kids, especially when Ti Moune shows up at the hotel and lies down with Daniel to spend the night. They also share a kiss at one point. But as a chance to entertain older children and expose them to high-quality theater, Once on This Island is a worthwhile escape.
Once on This Island runs through May 4, 2014. Tickets are $32.50 to $65.
- The production’s director, Alan Muroaka is from Sesame Street! He has been the proprietor of Mr. Hooper’s Store since 1997.
- Purchase your tickets online for any of the remaining shows.
- Materials that may be helpful to read before seeing the show include an Audience Context Guide. Copies of it were also on a table just outside the theater.
- Olney Theatre is a short drive from many eateries (Five Guys, California Tortilla, Mamma Lucia, to name a few), and Olney Ale House is right across the street. Snacks are sold before and after the show in the theater’s lobby.
- Once on This Island is playing in the 429-seat Mainstage theater (not to be confused with the Historic Stage).
- Olney Theatre Center presents Once on This Island, now playing, with Aisha Jackson as Ti Moune.
- Olney Theatre Center presents the Caribbean-infused family musical, Once on This Island, now playing, featuring Aisha Jackson as Ti Moune and Theresa Cunningham as Asaka (Mother of the Earth).
- Photos by Stan Barouh.