A Review of “Once on This Island” at OSF

Once on This Island (2022): Dominique Lawson, Ayvah Johnson, Ciera Dawn, and Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham. Image Credit Oregon Shakespeare Festival

There’s nothing that cures the midterm mood quite like an OSF musical. Throughout the month of April, OSF was offering $5 tickets to SOU students to two different plays: “Unseen” and “Once on This Island”. I decided to see “Once” with some friends, since I can’t turn down a good musical. 

Directed by Lili-Anne Brown with music by Stephen Flaherty and book/lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, “Once on This Island” follows a group of storytellers telling the story of Ti Moune to a little girl after a big storm in Haiti. In their story Mama Euralie, played by Patricia Jewel, and Tonton Julian, played by J. D. Webster, find a young Ti Moune, played by Sasha Jewel Weymouth, who was orphaned after a terrible storm, and decide to adopt her. She grows up to be an adventurous young woman (played now by Ciera Dawn) wanting to know what her purpose is in life. 

Right off the bat, this show blew me away. From the amazing singing and acting to the technical aspects like lighting and set, to even the costumes (and I usually don’t notice the costumes at first!), it felt like every part of this show had emotion, had something to say. I especially loved how the show used the Angus Bowmer Theatre’s space, especially the trap door in the center of the stage where Papa Ge, the God of Death (played by Chuckie Benson) appeared near the end of the play. The beautiful lights brilliantly showed a sunny day or a rainy night, and the ensemble acted as trees and animals as well as passerby, which helped enhance the story even more.

I can’t talk about “Once” if I don’t talk about the four gods—Papa Ge, Agwe, the God of Water (played by Michael Wordly), Asaka, Mother of the Earth (played by Phyre Hawkins), and Erzulie, the Goddess of Love (played by Camille Robinson). The four of them brought such emotion and energy to their roles that I could not take my eyes off of them.

In looking at the program, I found that Once is an adaptation of Rosa Guy’s novel “My Love, My Love”, which in itself is an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” Toward the end of the show I realized…it’s the Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” Meaning the original fairytale does not have the happy ending the Disney one has (google it—it’s not a direct spoiler to Once, and it’s not as bad as the original Cinderella ending). That being said, the ending of the story the others tell the little girl is sad, but also filled with hope, which I think is incredibly important. 

Finally, I think one of the things that made me fall in love with this show was seeing the audience incredibly engaged. They applauded when it was announced which understudies would be covering for different actors, laughed with the jokes, and didn’t utter a word when there was an intense moment or passionate song. Like many, this is some of my first theatre since the pandemic (and my second OSF show since “It’s Christmas, Carol”), so while I believe people were engrossed in the story and the love, they also missed the theatre. 

“Once on This Island” is showing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival until October 30th, 2022. Tickets for that as well as the other shows this season can be found here. Prices range from $35 to $75. 

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