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Paulanne Simmons

"Once on This Island" Is Worth the Trip Over the River

From left to right: Darius de Haas, Saycon Sengbloh, Jerold E. Solomon, Kenita R. Miller, Aurelia Williams, Alan Mingo Jr., Syesha Mercado and Courtney Reed. Photo by Jerry Dalia.

Once on This Island
Directed by Thomas Kail
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Paper Mill Playhouse
From May 30, 2012
Wed. at 7:30pm, Thurs. at1:30pm & 7:30pm, Fri. at 8:00pm, Sat. at 1:30pm & 8:00pm, Sun. at 1:30pm & 8:00pm
Closes June 24, 2012
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons June 3, 2012

"Once on This Island," a one-act musical, based on the novel My Love by Rosa Guy, with a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, was originally staged in 1990 at off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, where it ran for several weeks in the month of May. The Broadway production opened on October 18, 1990 at the Booth Theatre and closed on December 1, 1991, after 469 performances and 19 previews.

This does not exactly make the show a huge hit. Yet "Once on This Island" has become a staple with youth and community theaters, and for good reason. The story of a peasant girl who falls selflessly in love with a rich young man whose life she has saved
makes an impassioned plea for the power love has to bring diverse people together. And it has a magnificent score inflected with caribbean rhythms.

Syesha Mercado (Center), Courtney Reed (Left), Kevin R. Free and Kenita R. Miller (Right). Photo by Jerry Dalia.

The Paper Mill Playhouse’s vibrant revival, directed by Thomas Kail, features Syesha Mercado as the peasant girl, Ti Moune. Mercado is a former leading lady in the national company of the musical, "Dreamgirls," but not too surprisingly, she lso played Ti Moune in her high school production of the show, a role she calls "important to my life experience."

Mercado has the powerful voice and sweet looks that make her perfect for the role. She is simply enchanting and it is easy to see how she cures the injured Daniel (Adam Jacobs) and casts a spell over him.

Other standouts in the cast include Aurelia Williams as Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Saycon Sengbloh as Erzulie, Goddess of Love; Alan Mingo, Jr. as Papa Ge, Demon of Death; and Kentra R. Miller as Mama Euralie. But in many ways "Once on This Island" is an ensemble piece with all the actors as "The Storytellers."

Musical director Lynne Shankel gets a truly beautiful sound out of the choral singing which comprises so much of this show. In fact, "Once on This Island" proves that it doe indeed "take a village."

The success of the production also must be credited to the fine work of scenic designer Donyale Werle and costume designer Jessica Jahn, who turn the Paper Mill Playhouse stage into a tropical island paradise.

"Once on This Island" is a great family show that beguiles both adults and children. At ninety minutes, it works for even those children who might fidget during a longer show. It’s a wonderful lesson for young and old, told with just enough sweetness to make it go down easy.

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