The sights, the sounds, and the colors of the Caribbean fill the Cerritos Performing Arts Center as 3-D Theatricals treats its audiences to Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s tale of star-crossed island lovers, the magical musical Once On This Island.
Based on the novel My Love, My Love: or The Peasant Girl, Rosa Guy’s tropical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Once On This Island transforms Andersen’s sea sprite into T’Moune (Leah Stewart), orphaned as a young child and raised by Tonton Julian (Keith Jefferson) and his wife Mama Euralie (Erika Bowman) as their own on an island called Jewel Of The Antilles.
Colonized by the French, Jewel Of The Antilles now finds its population split between light-skinned, mixed-raced descendents of frisky plantation owners and their female slaves, chief among them a handsome young playboy named Daniel Beauxhomme (Cooper Howell), and darker-complexioned natives who revere gods and goddesses like Demon of Death Papa Ge (Edred Utomi), Goddess of Love Eruzlie (Daebreon Poiema), God of Water Agwe (Jay Donnell), and Mother of the Earth Asaka (Dominique Kent).
When Agwe causes a recklessly-driving Daniel to crash his car one dark and stormy night, it’s up to T’Moune to nurse him back to health and teach him the meaning of true love, albeit one forbidden by generations of island prejudice and tradition.
Nominated for eight Tony Awards in its 1990 Broadway debut, Once On This Island has since become a high school theater department favorite but hasn’t had a SoCal professional revival in a dozen years, just one reason to celebrate its 3-D Theatricals return.
As anyone who’s seen Ragtime, Seussical, A Man Of No Importance, Lucky Stiff, or Dessa Rose can tell you, lyricist Flaherty and lyricist Ahrens never fail to reinvent themselves, and in Once On This Island, their tropical melodies, rhythms, and vernacular prove positively intoxicating.
Book writer Ahrens tells T’Moune’s story almost entirely through song, and what a bunch of beauties she and Flaherty have created, from the exquisite “Forever Yours,” “The Human Heart,” and “Some Girls” to the calypso-flavored “Mama Will Provide,” “Why We Tell The Story,” and “We Dance.”
And speaking of dance, choreographer Yusuf Nasir gives us one spectacular production number after another, and barefoot to boot, adding up to a ninety-minute song-and-dance mix that never fails to mesmerize, (The flashbacking “The Sad Tale Of The Beauxhommes” is a fanciful standout.)
Adding to the magic is a brand spanking new production design by some of SoCal’s most gifted stage artists, including Stephen Gifford and Nephi Garcia, whose stunning revolving tropical island set (Gifford’s) and vibrantly-hued native costumes (Garcia’s) look even more eye-catching thanks to Jean-Yves Tessier’s strikingly saturated lighting design.
Rufus Bonds II directs masterfully, and by nearly doubling the original cast to a grand total of twenty, 3-D Theatricals has taken a chamber musical best suited to an intimate setting and transformed it into a bona fide Broadway-scale dazzler.
Performances could not be finer, beginning with Stewart’s absolutely captivating star turn as T’Moune, revealing sweetness and depth, singing quite gloriously, and showing off solo dance sizzle in “T’Moune’s Dance.”
Dynamic duo Bowman and Jefferson bring maternal passion and paternal fire to Mama Eulalie and Tonton Julian, and triple-threat Howell once again combines leading man appeal with edge.
As for those gods and goddesses, Utomi makes death look sexy, Poiema turns Erzulie into a tropical Deena Jones, Kent gives Asaka enough earth-mother warmth to heat the coldest heart, and Donnell’s Agwe is as ocean-deep as a water god should be.
Dance captain Jenna Gillespie and David T. Morris make terrific double impressions as both storytellers and as Andrea and Armand, with fellow storytellers Christopher C. Fishburne, Nic Hodges, Gabrielle Jackson, Mia L. Jones, Jade Payton, and Eran Scoggins providing all-around sensational song-and-dance support.
Kayla Joy smith is an adorable Little T’ Moune, with Kennedy Nibbe, Mackenzie Nibbe, and Inaya Reddick adding their own little girl charms.
Cast vocals could not be finer under Corey Hirsch’s expert musical direction, and with Hirsch holding the baton, the Once On This Island orchestra of six (provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective) sound like twice that many, thanks in part to Julie Ferrin’s pitch-perfect sound design.
Additional production design kudos go to Peter Herman (wigs), Gretchen Morales (props), and Andrew Nagy (projections).
Terry Hanrahan is production stage manager and David Jordan Nestor is assistant stage manager. Jene Roach is technical director.
In programming a musical known best by Broadway buffs (and parents of kids who’ve performed it in school), 3-D Theatricals is taking a chance on the largely unfamiliar, a gamble that pays off and then some. Guaranteed to get you up on your feet for its celebratory grand finale, Once On This Island is as crowd-pleasing a tropical treat as you’re likely to see all year.
Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts, 12700 Center Ct Dr S, Cerritos.
February 25, 2017
Photos: Isaac James Creative