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: Sleeping Beauty (Marriott Theatre)

Centuries-old fairy tale energized with girl-power

 SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amber 2

Marriott Theatre presents:

 

Sleeping Beauty 

Adapted by Marc Robin
Directed and choreographed by
Matt Raftery
At
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through April 25th
(more info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

“Sleeping Beauty” was first published in 1697, and since then has morphed, changed, been embellished and re-interpreted in thousands of ways; both subtle and overt. Here in America, any girls born after 1959 probably know the Walt Disney version of the story the best; lovely, quiet Aurora sings and picks flowers, obeys her godmothers (without any inclination that they are, in fact, fairies  – and that she is in fact a princess), gets tricked, falls asleep, gets rescued by an equally genteel and beautiful prince and they all live happily ever after. The film is a classic, but SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amberprincesses like that don’t reign anymore. It is no longer interesting to see a heroine who goes through the story with no control over her actions, and whose main character arc is going from slumber to awake.

In Marc Robin’s new theatrical adaptation, produced by the Marriott Theater for Young Audiences, Sleeping Beauty is a tomboy: she spends her days climbing trees, dreaming of adventure and defending the bumbling dork Prince Hunter (Ryan Reilly) from fire-breathing dragons. Her dialogue is lightly peppered with girl power rhetoric: she claims that pressure for her to wear dresses is "stereotyping" and at one point accuses her Puck-like attendant (Andrew Keltz) of discrimination. These not-so-subtle aims to break down hundreds of years of gender expectations are nice to see, even if they do go over the heads of the kids in the audience and are too broad for the adults.

Sleeping Beauty has gone by many names, including Grimm’s Briar Rose and Disney’s Aurora.  Here, however, she is Princess Amber, of Colorland (played by Jessie Mueller). Colorland is a magical world where everyone has their own color that identifies them: the three fairy godmothers are Periwinkle (Heidi Kettenring), Ruby (Johanna McKenzie Miller) and Marigold (Tammy Mader), and the wicked fairy who condemns Amber to prick her finger on that fateful spinning wheel is Magenta (Susan Moniz). The three good fairies have a nice relationship, and Heidi Kettenring’s goofball performance is a standout (remarked my six year old companion, "Periwinkle was funny!"). Magenta is bad without ever being too scary. The fear factor for kids varies widely; age and sensibility are obvious factors. I brought a six year old and a nine year old who had different reactions to Magenta. The six year old was a little scared of Magenta, but managed to work through it, while the nine year old was mostly interested in her dress which was "cool." Magenta does in fact have a cool dress, designed by Nancy Missimi, but no extra baubles that would make her SLEEPING BEAUTY--Ryan Reilly as Prince Hunter, Jessie Mueller as Amberparticularly freaky to most kids – she does not sport any weird make up, wear a mask or wig, or anything out of the ordinary that would be particularly creepy.

The show is nicely paced. The whole production, including the talk back at the end, runs about 90-minutes. The top half of the show is focused on Princess Amber and her unconventional personality. The presence of Princess Amber is strongly felt, and her sleep is greatly reduced from the hundred years of most versions to an afternoon. During this time, Prince Hunter has to overcome a series of obstacles in order to save his slumbering love with a kiss. Being scared and uncoordinated, he relies both on the fairies and on the audience to help. The children in the audience are cued to shout "I’m your friend" and "You can do it!" at different times. Some kids might find this embarrassing, but it makes for a lively production. The connection between actors and audience is stronger here than in most adult theater. It comes to a quick, clean conclusion and ends on a high happy note (go figure).

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Andrew Keltz, Susan Moniz, Jessie Mueller SLEEPING BEAUTY--Tammy Mader, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Bernie Yvon, Heidi Kettenring

Sleeping Beauty ends with a question/answer talk back, introducing the audience to the actors, the stage manager, the back stage crew and the live band, which is educational and well rounded. The kids get to ask the actors questions about plot points that don’t make sense to them or special effects that seem like real magic to little eyes. The encouraging and informative nature of this talk back is the highlight of the show. Imagination and participation are strongly encouraged by the charming cast, which hosts the session.

The play, which is staged in the round, shares the lovely real wood, rustic set of Fiddler on the Roof, the evening production at the Marriott Theater for Old Audiences. The set was conceived to work with both productions, and doubles well. The natural looking set relieves some of the tension of the princess-and-fairy-run-world of Colorland and brings the production down to earth. The fire breathing dragon, who makes two appearances is constructed of three parts, operated by three different people. The three actors walk in unison, holding large wood puppets representing the three sections of the dragon’s body. The effect is nice and organic. It is also not the only shadowing of Julie Taymor-esque impressionism: a cloth mound is a mountain, a blue sheet is the sea.

The production sets its audience up to fill in the blanks with their imaginations, which proves easy for the kids.  And for adults, it’s nice to see some subtlety in children’s entertainment. Sleeping Beauty respects the intelligence of children and the sanity of adults: it’s is never over-stimulating or tacky.  The little ones in the audience don’t see the thought that went into this production, but they will enjoy it without the need for shock-value. The clarity and focus of the storytelling make Marriott Lincolnshire’s Sleeping Beauty a perfectly nice and colorful way to spend your morning with the little ones in your life.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Heidi Kettenring, Susan Moniz, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Tammy Mader

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