REVIEW: Once on this Island (Marriott Theatre)

Refreshing as a cool summer breeze.

 

ISLAND- Full Cast

   
Marriott Theatre presents
   
Once on this Island
   
Book/Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by
Stephen Flaherty
Direction/Choreography by
David H. Bell
Musical Direction by
Ryan T. Nelson
at
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $35-$55  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Ahrens and Flaherty’s Once on this Island is best when the entire ensemble is on stage. During these group numbers, Flaherty’s score is heavily influenced by the calypso and tribal music of the Caribbean, giving the show a distinct sound perfectly suited for the mystical subject matter. Ti Moune (Chasten Harmon) and Daniel (Brandon Koller) are two lovers from different worlds: the former an orphaned peasant, the latter a mixed-race aristocrat. After being seriously injured in a car accident, Daniel is found by a bewildered once-on-this-island Ti Moune, who prays to the Gods to give her  the power to nurse him back to health and win his heart.

Director-choreographer David H. Bell and his cast work wonders in the Marriott space, using props and movement to create the illusion of rain, birds, trees, and other island phenomena without the need for set dressing. This gives the ensemble ample room to move, a necessity for Bell’s intensely physical choreography, and makes the efforts of the actors to create a fully realized setting even more impressive. The problem with Once on this Island, though, is that these group sequences are much more interesting than the action involving the principals, slowing down the momentum of the production during those scenes.

Harmon captures Ti Moune’s youthful effervescence and naiveté well, but her vocals feel restricted, as if she is holding back her vibrato to keep better control over the notes. It makes the moments when her vibrato creeps in feel out of place, but also gives the feeling that each belt could be taken all that much further. Koller’s songs are fairly typical Broadway fare, but he doesn’t really have much to do until the second half of the show. There’s artificiality to his charm that gives Daniel a very ‘90s boy-band quality, and he takes on a bizarre dialect that sounds nothing like anyone else’s in the show and goes back and forth between French and an odd assortment of eastern European accents. The chemistry between the two finally clicks during the (surprise) group number “The Human Heart,” but it never reaches the emotional heights needed for the show’s climax.

Luckily, the rest of the cast picks up the slack.

Melody Betts’s incredible vocal instrument is used to its fullest as Asaka, God of Earth, her powerhouse belt combined with a motherly affection that gives each note beautiful emotional weight. Erzulie (Melinda Wakefield Alberty), God of Love, achieves the same effect with a gentler touch, maintaining strength but bringing a smoother groove, especially during the pitch perfect “Human Heart.” I’m a big fan of the HBO series Treme, and Nancy Missimi’s god costumes reminded me of the Indian chief garb donned by some of the show’s characters (albeit on a smaller scale), as seen here:

imageThe massive voice of Michael James Leslie, playing Ti Moune’s adopted father Tonton Julian, is almost too big for the Marriott space, but there’s a goofy bewilderment about his characterization that makes it fit, as if Tonton doesn’t realize how loud he really is. Along with Nya as Little Ti Moune, Leslie turns up the adorable factor for this production, creating the kind of good hearted character that you only see on stage.

When Once on this Island embraces its cultural heritage, whether it is in the calypso rhythms of the score or the tribal dance choreography, it is unforgettable. Ahrens’s book embraces the mystical beliefs of the native people, and the direction has an ethereal quality that reinforces the fable aspects of the narrative. Bell and his ensemble of actors transport the audience to an exotic world, and the music is richer when it taps into the vast cultural history of island music. The transformative powers of the creative team are magical in themselves, and a trip out to Lincolnshire is worth the illusion of a cool Caribbean breeze carrying the scent of mangos and the taste of saltwater.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
   

ISLAND- Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune and Brandon Koller as Daniel

ISLAND- Nya as Little Ti Moune Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune Joslyn Jones (Euralie) and Chaston Harmon (Ti Moune)
ISLAND- Chasten Harmon as Ti Moune and Melody Betts as Asaka once-on-this-island-2
       

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REVIEW: Hard Headed Heart (Blair Thomas and Co.)

Sad puppet love, high art

  
   

hard-hearted-heart-blair-thomas

         
Blair Thomas & Co. presents
    
Hard Headed Heart
   
Created by Blair Thomas
Victory Gardens, Richard Christiansen Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago (map)
Through Aug. 21  | 
Tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

We long ago learned that puppets aren’t just for kids. In founding Redmoon Theater 20 years ago, puppeteer Blair Thomas taught Chicago that lesson with giant puppets, keen artistry and contemporary work. Now, in his intimate, one-man show Hard Headed Heart, currently at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater, Thomas deftly schools us in historic puppetry arts while focusing on darkly romantic adult themes.

blair_thomas_credit Saverio Truglia Don’t look for Redmoonlike spectacle, Disneyesque whimsy or Muppety cute — instead, in three lyrical, loosely connected vignettes, Thomas showcases a variety of smaller format, centuries-old puppetry forms: wooden-headed hand puppets; jointed, rod marionettes; scrolling cantastoria; shadow puppets and rod puppets — all with an edge of grotesquerie. In a break with some of the traditions, Thomas, clad in a dusty black suit like a 19th-century undertaker, remains fully visible throughout, sometimes as puppeteer, sometimes as a live actor, creating an amalgam between puppetry and performance art. We’re always aware of the man — Thomas never effaces himself into a hidden operator behind the scenes.

Each of the three segments of the 75-minute show, first produced last year, has its own creative puppet set. Hard Headed Heart begins with Thomas’s lively, amusing rendition of "The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal" by Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, a lightly bawdy hand-puppet show about the courtship of the folkloric Spanish scalawag and bully Cristobal and his dubious lady love, Rosita.

At its outset, we’re treated to Thomas, in sad-faced clown makeup, playing the pompous director and the fanciful poet-author, whipping around a rotating costume as he converses with himself. Next comes a Punch and Judy-like act, with classically stylized puppets and a traditionally violent and silly love story. Thomas switches between manipulating the hand puppets, playing several musical instruments and performing in his director role in a frenetic, almost breathless one-man-band performance.

For the second act, Thomas riffs on the traditional New Orleans jazz funeral standard "St. James Infirmary." In this slow-moving piece, Thomas alternates between singing (with a vocal wail reminiscent of Cab Calloway in the 1933 Betty Boop cartoon "Snow-White"), operating rod marionettes in front of a motorized paper-scroll backdrop and playing ukelele, toy piano, drums, cymbals and what looks like a mellophone or BlairThomas-St James Infirmary_1_credit Kipling Swehla baritone bugle. With the mournful-visaged marionettes, designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock to evoke antique specimens, Thomas re-enacts the funereal love affair of the song to chillingly dramatic effect, with some particularly effective puppet dance moves that I’m sure are much harder to achieve than he makes them look.

Finally, Thomas presents Wallace Stevens’ poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in a shadow puppet show performed against a set of four backlit, rolling arts scrolls. To the music of Ben Johnston‘s String Quartet #4, Thomas dances below his moving paper images, cranking the rolls and using cut-outs, rod puppets and his hands to convey Stevens’ cryptic poetry.

This won’t be a show for everyone — those impatient with poetry or unsympathetic to largely plotless mood pieces about love gone wrong may not feel that its artistry overcomes those elements. Hard Headed Heart is for those who enjoy sad songs and art for art’s sake.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Note: Hard Headed Heart is suitable for ages 16 and up. Produced without an intermission, the show has open seating.

   
  

Part of Thomas’s performance of "St. James Infirmary" at the 2010 "Cranks and Banners" Festival.

  
  

Cab Calloway sings "St. James Infirmary" in Betty Boop’s "Snow-White."