Once on This Island cast shines despite opening night glitches

by Joe Jennison

City Circle – Friday night’s opening performance of City Circle Acting Company of Coralville’s Once on This Island at the Iowa Children’s Museum offered an entertaining evening of song and dance and storytelling, despite some obvious technical issues.

The evening started with an alarm and a loudspeaker offering an “Urgent Storm Warning.” Immediately following this alarm, eleven cast members wandered into the playing area as if coming into the mall’s storm shelter: someone from the cleaning crew, a Target check-out person, a family of shoppers, teenagers with several shopping bags and an Iowa Children’s Museum employee wearing a cotton pullover shirt. One of the shoppers is a little girl with her family who is obviously frightened by the storm.

The play’s narrator (Matthew James) begins to comfort the little girl by telling her a story using music and grand gestures and dance. He is a fine narrator and the story he begins to tell becomes the story we are all here to see: the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl from Haiti who falls in love with a rich man from the other side of the island. The play is based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy and is an epic love story utilizing colorful legends and Haitian folklore. Telling the story is a cast of “storytellers” who individually play all manner of roles backed up by an offstage band.

Co-directed by Rachel Korach Howell and Chris Okiishi, the story of Ti Moune is told using minimal set pieces and simple costuming. Cast members drape colorful sarongs over their modern street clothes, a directorial choice that left me frankly a bit baffled. In my opinion the street clothes took away from the story, constantly reminding me that this is a modern company attempting to recreate a timeless folktale. This may work for some, but I found myself throughout distracted by the designer tags and the sneakers and the brand names (Target, Iowa Children’s Museum) that were prominently displayed throughout.

The set designed by Michael Blake consists of colorful swinging doors that serve as a backdrop for the piece; and three small wooden blocks that are used on the playing area itself. Okiishi and Korach Howell have a lot of fun creating interesting stage pictures with the actors above, on top and peeking from behind these pieces. However, the small blocks used on the main playing area, and manipulated in several of the dance numbers, did not seem secure, and twice I saw performers struggle on top of them, once causing an audible gasp from the audience.

The show seemed to be at its very best during the very creative dance sequences. Choreography by Patrick DuLaney is grand and well thought out. DuLaney takes the limiting set and costume pieces and convincingly uses them to his advantage. Throughout the production, these large colorful fabrics are creatively used to tell the story – a large blue fabric becomes a flood, a car accident is recreated by rolling the performer involved into and out of the fabric, and a beautiful moment at the end is created by using all the fabrics on stage at once to become tree branches. These moments are some of my favorite moments in the show. And all involved need to be commended for their creativity in staging.

This is truly an ensemble cast show, all of whom appear to be having a great time telling this Haitian folktale. Special note needs to be given to the two actresses that played Ti Muone. Fourth-grader Rachel Falduto was delightful as Little Ti Muone, a fine actress who seemed to hold her own alongside so many adults. And Melissa Melloy as older Ti Muone proved her power in several sequences, maybe most convincingly by using her hands and body to tell the story through dance. Several times throughout the piece, DuLaney choreographs Melloy center stage, and in those moments of pure movement, she was indeed a vision as she commits 100 percent to her dance sequences. Her love interest, played by Ryan Shellady, also is very comfortable on stage, in general, but particularly in the dance sequences, and the two together share a real chemistry that is honest and genuine. Megan Henry as Andrea, the woman who comes between the two, also delivers a fine performance.

Ti Moune’s adoptive parents played by John Bednarik and Genevieve Heinrich are convincingly parental, and both obviously have voices that carry. Heinrich’s a capella line at the end of the play: “You will always be a part of us” is delivered simply and directly and poignantly, and is much more effective than the over-pantomimed onstage discussions that take place between several cast members throughout the piece.

One of my favorite numbers was “The Human Heart” led by Megan Keiser as Erzulie with Rod McCrea shining here singing backup. Keiser seems to glow on stage – she certainly understands her medium and her audience and seems to relish every moment. She is one of those performers that has the right energy and voice, and is always just plain fun to watch.

Another favorite number was “Mama Will Provide.” The song, led very convincingly by cast member Lauren Baker as Asaka, asks the other cast members to portray breezes and frogs and birds and trees, and mosquitoes, which they all do with joy and commitment. The energy of the ensemble here, and throughout the show, is captivating and contagious, and Baker’s voice is obviously well trained and lovely to listen to. However, her voice, and the voices of several performers in solo throughout the evening, could not quite reach above the sounds of the orchestra.

Which brings me to my main concern about the opening night production: Although the orchestra was fabulous, I would argue that on opening night the music overpowered almost every performer on stage, with nearly every singer forced to attempt to out-project the fine piano, drums, woodwinds and bass that were placed upstage behind a curtain. Some succeeded such as Kehry Anson Lane as Papa Ge. His voice is indeed powerful and his evil laugh is deliciously sinister, and every time he is given the stage, he takes charge. Most of the others, however, were unfortunately overpowered by the music. (NOTE: Without prompting, director Okiishi asked me to move at intermission so that I might hear the piece better, which I did. This small step did indeed help, but I hope that this issue has been corrected for future patrons.)

I love the storytelling, the idea of an 11-piece ensemble working together to share this Haitian folktale. The music is memorable, the choreography is convincing and the creative use of textiles in the telling of the story is lots of fun. This ensemble spends much of the time genuinely smiling, and their joy is apparent. The opening night audience did indeed join the cast onstage at the finale to sing and dance, but cast members seemed a bit awkward and uncomfortable with the bit, especially when it came time to figure out how and when to end it. But even with that said, don’t be surprised if at the end of the show, you too will be compelled to get up and dance and sing with the cast at the finale as they remind us of their role as storytellers: “This is why we tell the story…”

City Circle Acting Company of Coralville’s Once on This Island continues this week at the Iowa Children’s Museum, 1451 Coralridge Ave., Coralville, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 22 and 23, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 24, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20, with discounts for seniors and students. Reservations and information are available online through http://www.citycircle.org.

(Photos by ICPixx. Check out their website here.)

Joe Jennison is a freelance writer and playwright living in Mount Vernon. He can be reached at joejennison@hotmail.com.

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One thought on “Once on This Island cast shines despite opening night glitches

  1. Thank you Joe! Always great to hear your thoughts.

    Two notes:

    The opening night sound balance issues have been resolved, we believe. An amplifier on the keyboard was a little too “hot” and we've swaped it out.

    Also, we felt it important that we keep the “storytelling” part of the show present at all times, out of respect to the authors' intentions and to the fact that culturally this is not our story, but thematically, issues of class and status are very much alive in our community. Hence, the costuming choice not to obscure the authentic identity of the actors was intentional.

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