Once on This Island JR. (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)


What’s it about?

Once on This Island JR. is an abridged version of the acclaimed Broadway musical Once on This Island, which premiered in 1990 and ran for over a year. Based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love, and with music by Stephen Flaherty and music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the musical tells the story of Ti Moune, an orphaned peasant girl on a small island in the French Antilles, who rescues Daniel, a rich planter’s son from the other side of the island, when he wrecks his car during a storm. Ti Moune falls in love with Daniel, even promising her soul to Papa Ge, a Demon of Death, if Daniel’s doesn’t die. Daniel’s life is spared, and Ti Moune works to nurse him back to health. Daniel’s family soon appears to take him back to their side of the island and to a life of privilege and wealth the complete opposite of Ti Moune’s home. Against the advice of her adoptive parents, Ti Moune sets out to return to Daniel, certain that her love for him will be returned in kind; little does she know that Papa Ge, to whom she has promised her soul, and Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, have a wager going with Ti Moune’s life to determine which is stronger: the power of love or the power of death.

Photo: David Heasley

Is it worth seeing?
Absolutely! Granted, this is a version of the show with a few songs cut and altered, but the basic story and the best, most lively songs are still intact. This production runs about an hour in length and is appropriate for ages six and up, but by no means is this a show that only children can appreciate.

I must say that, as a big fan of the original show, I went into this altered “JR.” version more than a bit concerned. The color element, an intrinsic part of the original story (the poor side of the island has dark-skinned peasants while the affluent part has light-skinned rich folks), has been surgically removed from this edition, opening up the musical to be performed by all races and ethnicities; the classism is still there, but this time around skin color isn’t a factor. The result isn’t blasphemous like say an all-white production of A Raisin in the Sun or The Color Purple might be, but important songs that serve to explain more of the plot (“The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” “Some Say,” and “Some Girls”) have been cut. The big love song “Forever Yours” has also been trimmed down to almost nothing; still, this adaptation (approved by the creative team) is successful in turning a show with some mature themes and concepts into one palatable for children and adults alike. This is one musical for which every track on the original cast recording is worthy; in fact, it might appeal to adults more than kids.

Director Ryan Scarlata guides his Summer Youth Performance Conservatory cast of teens and pre-teens deftly, always keeping the action moving. The cast is energetic with talent and spirit to spare, and their ensemble singing is notable for the clarity in their diction. So often ensemble numbers can sound unfocused with moments being unintelligible, but that is not the case here; in fact, the overall sound design is spot on, with the pre-recorded orchestra track at an appropriate level to allow the vocal performances to dominate. Jeffrey Gress’s multi-level set looks a bit reminiscent of Mamma Mia with its beachy coloring and bold blue sky, but it suits this story very well, as do the saturated colors and patterns of the costumes (save for those worn by the affluent side of the island, a wise choice to visually show the difference between the social classes).

Photo: David Heasley

Standouts in the cast include Sara Tuohy as Ti Moune, her voice possessing a purity that is thrilling; Amirah Joy Lomax as Asaka, Goddess of the Earth, whose performance of “Mama Will Provide” is engaging enough to inspire spontaneous dancing from the audience (they didn’t do it at the performance I attended, but I would not be surprised to learn if it happened); Kyle Channell as Tonton Julian and Megan Masciola as Mama Euralie are caring foster parents to Ms. Tuohy’s Ti Moune, their voices full of genuine affection and heart when they warn her of seeking out Daniel; Katie Wagner as Erzulie, Goddess of Love, whose rendition of “The Human Heart” is instilled with wisdom beyond her years; and Maria Dalanno as Andrea, Daniel’s betrothed (Sorry! Spoiler alert!), brings nuance to a character that can be played as just a snotty mean girl; Ms. Dalanno appears too clever to play just that one note, as here she ranges from skeptical to annoyed to concerned and finally empathetic to Ti Moune’s feelings.

The source novel derives inspiration from Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid with its sad conclusion intact, and yet the ending of Once on This Island JR. is filled with hope for the future. The message of parents needing to allow their children to explore the world and make their own mistakes is quite clear, as is the point that sometimes it takes just one person to go against the grain to change the future, no matter how many naysayers are on the sidelines.

Once on This Island JR. is not as sterling a show as in its original version, but this children’s adaptation comes awfully close. Only those familiar with the original show will sense the changes, and judged on its own merits this is one production that I can highly recommend.

My rating: *** 1/2 out of ****

Photo: David Heasley

Where can I see it?

Once on This Island JR. continues through to August 7th in Columbus Children’s Theatre’s Park Street Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/once-on-this-island-jr.html

Photo: David Heasley

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You Can’t Take It With You (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
“Life is kind of beautiful if you just let it come to you,” says Martin Vanderhof, the patriarch of the unconventional Sycamore family; he also states, “The world’s not so crazy – it’s the people in it!” There is a lot of wisdom in Mr. Vanderhof’s words, and the “crazy” he speaks of might just be his own family of misfits; they are the focus of the delightful classic comedy You Can’t Take It With You, currently enjoying a splendid run courtesy of Curtain Players in Gahanna, Ohio.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 

You Can’t Take It With You premiered on Broadway in 1936, ran for two years, and was adapted (and extensively rewritten) into a 1938 Academy Award-winning film by Frank Capra starring James Stewart. Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the play revolves around the Sycamore family, a rather unconventional group of people that explore their hobbies with gusto but are traditionally unemployed; that is, except for Alice Sycamore (Madison Garvin Lee), the only household member with a regular job. When Alice gets serious with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Jack Miller), it becomes time for her family to meet her beau and his family; after all, a man doesn’t just marry a woman – he marries her family too. Think of it as a less vulgar version of Meet the Parents, the 2000 comedy film starring Ben Stiller, which owes a lot to this play. The requisite mayhem ensues as the Sycamore clan clashes with the Kirby society folk (or is it the other way around?), but the real joy is seeing how everything will play out. Martin Vanderhof, Alice’s grandfather and the wise patriarch of the household, justifies his family’s pursuit of their passions by stating, “You can’t take it with you,” referring to money (the preoccupation of the Kirby family) as well as time. His daughter writes plays, his son-in-law creates fireworks in the basement, one granddaughter is a budding (but uncoordinated) ballerina, his grandson-in-law enjoys playing with his printing press – everyone has a hobby that means something to them even though it may seem strange to outsiders.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
The aforementioned Martin Vanderhof is played by Larry Cole as gentle, loving, understanding – essentially every quality one would want in a grandfather, but perhaps without the snakes he collects. He is matched on the other end of the spectrum by Doug Browell as Tony’s blustery father, Mr. Kirby, who says more with a scowl and glance than many performers could get across in a full page of dialogue. Mr. Cole and Mr. Browell are the two stage veterans that anchor this production, and they hold their own alongside some of the best character actors in the area in the many supporting parts of this piece.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Standouts in the supporting cast are Julie Emmert-Silvius as Penelope Sycamore, the playwriting matriarch of the household; Kirsten Peninger as Essie, her would-be ballerina daughter; Jeff Kemeter as Ed, Essie’s doting printer/xylophonist husband; Sean Coffman as Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s Soviet ballet instructor; and Linda Goodwin as Mrs. Kirby, the disapproving mother of the potential groom. Each of these supporting cast members threaten to upstage each other at any moment and yet don’t; there are more than enough wacky and uncomfortable moments to go around, and these supporting players are particularly gifted at playing it all honestly without mugging, which only makes it funnier. I don’t mean light giggle funny; I’m talking laugh-out-loud funny, especially the moments when Ms. Peninger suggestively stretches and arches, blissfully unaware of how inappropriate she looks doing so.
 
Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Director Kate Tull has her hands full with this cast of sixteen but makes it all work. Even though the characters are often saying and doing odd things, they play it quite seriously, free of the mugging and sly glances that show that they are in on the joke, a consistent problem I find with stage comedies. Being blissfully unaware of how their eccentricities look to those around them helps every comedic moment come across to maximum effect. Another observation I had was that if the play were to be set in the present time surely most of the Sycamore family would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome; it seems everything that diverges from the norm nowadays needs to be labeled.

Having seen the 1938 film and a production of the play in college, I had no idea how funny the play is because it wasn’t until now that I have witnessed it being performed properly. Minor quibbles are the extended scene changes with music that sounds too dramatic for this material as well as the sound effects of the firecrackers and explosions being quite timid in impact and volume (I have heard that this has since been corrected).

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 
Booth Muller’s set is award-worthy, with furniture and decoration extending out to the far corners of the stage (set decoration by an uncredited Ms. Tull and the cast). Somehow it never looks cramped, even when sixteen different characters are on stage all at once. It really looks like a living room of the period, though with humorous touches I don’t want to spoil by detailing here. Try to count all of the clocks on the stage, each set to a different time, a visual metaphor if ever I saw one. So much thought and care has gone into representing the interests of each of the characters in this set that it only serves to reinforce the reality of the situation; the set and its decoration is an unflinchingly honest as the characters who live there.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 

You Can’t Take It With You is a real gem of a play, dated only by its reference to there being forty-eight states, the presence of a rotary dial phone, and the now politically-incorrect use of the term “colored.” It makes sense that for many years this was the most-produced play in American high schools. There is a kind of optimism in the Vanderhof household free of the tinge of cynicism that seems to taint all of our entertainment nowadays. Even if you’ve seen the Oscar-winning Frank Capra film, you owe it to yourself to see the original play. The innocently naughty humor and unabashed honesty of the material is brilliantly presented in Curtain Players’ production; this isn’t one to miss.

*** 3/4 out of **** (yes, that’s 3.75 out of 4)

You Can’t Take It With You continues through to April 3rd in the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/5_cant_take.php
 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull