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Ashland Theater Review: Once on this Island

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Jenny Graham
/
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Phyre Hawkins and Ciera Dawn in Once on This Island.

Once on This Island, now playing at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bowmer Theatre, is a sweet, sentimental musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, based on a novel by Rosa Guy. It’s the Festival’s offering for family entertainment, and children should enjoy it quite well if they’re given a little background about the history of Haiti.

In this romantic tale, said to be inspired by The Little Mermaid and Romeo and Juliet, a young girl is swept away from her home in a storm and ends up on a scenic island, where she is adopted by a loving couple. When she grows up, TiMoun, beautiful and dark skinned, falls in love with a light skinned Creole and makes a deal with four gods to save his life. There are some valuable messages in the story, but generally the script offers little nuance or depth.

As directed by Lili-Anne Brown, however, the production is spectacular, with a large, multi-talented cast, fine musicians, and gorgeous costumes, sets and lighting. It runs 90 minutes without intermission, which is just right.

island-photo-5 (1).jpeg
Jenny Graham
/
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Michael Wordly and Ciera Dawn in Once on This Island.

Ciera Dawn as TiMoun displays exceptional dancing and singing skills, and Ayva Johnson as Little TiMoun already has star quality. Chuckie Benson has a fine time as the high-stepping, seductive death figure.

The production’s main fault is the sound. It’s so over-amplified that the lyrics are difficult to understand, especially when 15 people are singing together. In the Bowmer Theatre there’s no need to assault our eardrums.

If you think the show looks and sounds like a Disney musical, it will come as no surprise that plans are currently underway to create a version for Disney Plus.

Dorothy Velasco has reviewed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for KLCC since 1985.