5 reasons ‘Once on This Island’ will ‘grab you by the heart’

Production running Oct. 22-27 in Dayton includes seats on the stage, American Idol alum and Tony nominee in cast

The Ohio premiere of the atmospheric 2018 Tony Award-winning revival of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist/librettist Lynn Ahrens’ 1990 musical “Once on This Island” will be presented Oct. 22-27 at the Schuster Center.

It’s part of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series.

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Based on Rosa Guy’s novel “My Love My Love,” “Once on This Island” is a Caribbean-flavored tale of family, race, discrimination, faith, sacrifice, legacy, and romance. When daring peasant girl Ti Moune falls in love with wealthy Daniel, worlds collide and fears arise. With assistance from the powerful island gods Agwe (god of Water), Asaka (Mother of the Earth), Erzulie (goddess of Love), and Papa Ge (demon of Death), Ti Moune’s quest to win Daniel’s heart forever changes not only her path but the future of the entire island.

“‘Once on This Island’ is a beautiful, gorgeous show,” said VTA President and CEO Ty Sutton. “Most of the cast from Broadway signed up for the tour (which is) also exciting.”

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Here are five reasons to see this highly anticipated production, one of the best musical revivals of this decade, particularly featuring “American Idol” alumna Tamyra Gray and Tony nominee and Theatre World Award winner Philip Boykin (“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”) reprising their acclaimed roles as the evil Papa Ge and Ti Moune’s protective father Tonton Julian, respectively.

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1. It’s a universal story that transcends race

Although an exploration of the African-American experience at its core, “Once on This Island” has blossomed beyond race since its inception. In fact, the show has been routinely performed by diverse actors across the country and around the globe.

“It’s been done in Mexico, Japan, the Philippines, and even all-white schools,” Ahrens said. “The show completely transcends race. It specifically talks about race, especially skin color, but when all is said and done it’s about the human heart, the power of human beings to accept one another’s differences and to forgive and to continue to love even in the face of prejudice, pain and scorn. You can still conquer the world with love – that’s the show’s message.”

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2. A fantastic opening number

Unlike most of their contemporaries, Flaherty and Ahrens have relished providing big, strong and vibrant opening numbers for the majority of their shows, including “Lucky Stiff” (“Something Funny’s Going On”), “My Favorite Year” (“Twenty Million People”), “Seussical” (“Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!”), and the marvelous, Tony-winning “Ragtime” (“Ragtime”).

For “Once on This Island,” the energetic “We Dance” sets an incredibly tropical, spirited, community-driven tone. In many respects, the song is just as perfect as “Tradition” in “Fiddler on the Roof.” “‘We Dance’ is a particularly successful opening number,” Ahrens said. “It not only sets up the world of the show but the tradition of the island, especially the gods they believe in, and also the conflicts that’s going to ensue between the rich and the poor and the dark-skinned and light-skinned islanders. It accomplishes so much. The song can’t help but charm people.”

3. It’s an immersive experience

On Broadway, the musical was staged in the round at Circle in the Square, but director Michael Arden and set designer Dane Laffrey have found new avenues to present the show within the confines of a traditional proscenium setting. In addition to onstage seating, audiences will be treated to live animals heightening atmospherics.

“Honestly, the way the set has been rethought for a proscenium stage, audiences will never have seen anything like it on tour,” Ahrens said. “It will give the impression of being in the round due to audiences sitting onstage. It’s going to be a very immersive experience.”

“The production will have live chickens as well as sand and water,” Sutton said.

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4. Unique explorations of gender

Arden’s decision to rethink gender roles and gender identity is a timely, relevant and inclusive distinction of the production. In addition to the aforementioned Gray as Papa Ge, Kyle Ramar Freeman portrays the motherly Asaka, whose sassy solo “Mama Will Provide” is sure to be a knockout.

“Tamyra, so beautiful and so powerful with an amazing voice, has created a god of Death that is perhaps the scariest creature you’ve ever seen,” Ahrens said. “Michael not only wanted diversity of skin colors but diversity of ethnicities and sexes. He wanted to shake up all our preconceptions. He really wanted a man to play Asaka because men are nurturing and loving and also caregivers.”

5. Testament to hope, community and survival

Fully aware of the divisions within the nation as well as the various tragedies and disasters the Dayton region has undergone this year, Ahrens hopes “Once on This Island” will be a refreshing, entertaining source of healing and hope for the Miami Valley.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” she said. “We’re going through a lot of turmoil right now. We’re feeling a lot of anger and hostility toward people who don’t think the way we do – the art of conversation has been lost – but this show grabs you by the heart. It’s about people, a community, coming together to help each other. The show takes on a very contemporary resonance that isn’t apparent at first, but little by little it becomes something more serious and meaningful.”

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What: "Once on This Island"

Where: Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. Dayton

When: Oct. 22-27; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $26-$99

Tickets: Call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com

FYI: The musical is performed in roughly 90 minutes without an intermission.

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