By Jennifer L. Gusso
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes with intermission
High-quality theatre is always a “wow” moment. Achieving that effect with a cast of all young people is especially impressive, and Director Liz Boyer Hunnicutt has outdone herself again with Children Playhouse of Maryland’s current production of Once on This Island Jr. with Music by Stephen Flaherty and Lyrics and Book by Lynn Ahrens. From the moment that you arrive on property, meeting a real live goal and being welcomed to the island by young cast members, already in character, you are transported to another world. The bright and colorful costume design by Sharon Byrd sets the tone immediately that you have traveled off the campus and to a land faraway. The combined efforts of Diane M. Smith (Technical Director/Set Design & Construction), Tyrell Stanley (Lighting Designer), Laura Miller (Scenic Artist), and Donna Flaharty (Light Board Operator) really build on this vision with their excellent design work. There is a bubbling fountain on stage, and the show begins with sparks of special effects as the Gods enter from the back of the house. Even the traditional curtain speech is shortened and made into a recording to be certain not to break the spell of the transformation. The set, lighting, and technical choices continue throughout to be an intricate part of the action and the vision of the production.
Equally impressive are the vocals, under the Musical Direction of Charlotte Evans, and the choreography by James Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt does a particular impressive job of getting the young cast to master synchronicity in movement and creating interesting and varied visual images. These adults have truly provided an impressive framework in which these young performers are able to shine.
And shine, they do. The large ensemble is full of energy and takes little moments and little solo lines to show the wealth of talent among the cast. Several get to stand out in some featured roles as well. Zachary Byrd (Daniel’s Father) possesses such a strong stage presence that he seems older than his years. Ryann Nicole Reich also makes a memorable impression with her turn as The Gatekeeper. Creating the backbone of the show that move the story forward are the four storytellers (Bella Comotto, Molly Foggo, Rose Glennon, and Talia Lebowitz). Foggo especially stands out in the role with her mature poise and grace.
What makes the story so compelling, though, is the heart displayed by the characters in this world. Allyson Gray (Little Girl/Little Ti Moune) is likely bound for stardom with her beautiful vocals and believable characterization. Her natural innocence and optimism serves as a beacon for the entire tale. Surrounding her with love are the sweet and loveable Tonton Julian (Matthew Byrd) and Mama Euralie (Phyllis Wainaina). Wainaina also has a voice that is clear as a bell and conveys her warmth. As much as the audience might want to be mad at Andrea (Zoe Hammel) and Daniel (Kevin Franiak), it is hard when Hammel and Franiak do such a nice job of making them believable and likeable and showing clearly that they never meant to hurt anyone.
For this production to work, though, it is the Gods who must be larger than life as they manipulate the actions of the players within. All four of these young women rose to this challenge in interesting and different ways. Anna Sophia Claudio (Erzulie, God of Love) is grace and elegance personified with a legit Broadway belt. Catie Zimmer (Papa Ge, God of Death) is everything evil and manipulative with a hint of real emotion buried in the nuances of her characterization. Anderson Gray (Agwe, God of Water) is wisdom and strength and a powerful, mature vocal sound. Dersha Horrey (Asaka, God of Earth) is vibrant, hilarious, and fills the room with her soul.
Of course, none of this would mean anything without the perfect Ti Moune, our hero. Nyani Hawkins is indeed perfect in this role; she is the ideal leading lady. Hawkins draws the audience into her world and into her big, beautiful heart. We root for her, and we cry for her, because Hawkins makes Ti Moune real. Hawkins has a beautiful quality to her voice and demonstrates control throughout and she wows the audience with her compelling dance. Hawkins, like the entire production, is truly spot-on and then some more. Audiences should not miss their chance to catch this wonderful show in the next two weekends.
This is what I thought of Children’s Playhouse of Maryland’s production of Once On This Island, Jr.… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
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