Review by Daz Gale
Summer is here. Well, not quite – but Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre are open and ready to kick off a bumper year with their impressive 2023 season, so you know the brief bit of sunshine is around the corner (let’s just hope it doesn’t rain on the night you attend Open Air Theatre). Kicking off an exciting and impressive line-up this year is a revival of Once On This Island. Since it was first seen in the UK in 1994, it has only been revived once… on this island, so we are long overdue a second. Would this be a worthy addition to the legacy of the Olivier award-winning show and be a great indicator for a fantastic year at Regent’s Park?
First staged on Broadway in 1990, Once On This Island is based on the novel 'My Love, My Love, Or The Peasant Girl' by Rosa Guy, itself a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, set in the Caribbean (though if you’re looking for Disney songs here, you might wat to see the new movie instead). It tells the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel and makes a deal with the Gods to save his life. As the course of true love never runs smooth, complications arise which leads Ti Moune to determine what she would give up for love.
Written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Once On This Island takes themes of love, faith and grief and sprinkles them with a healthy dose of heart. The consistently high quality writing lends itself to differing interpretations as various productions adapt the source material, but no matter what way this is done, the strength of the writing remains, ensuring the true heart of the story is always prominent throughout.
This new production takes a vastly different approach, particularly when compared to the most recent 2017 Broadway production (which completely blew me away). While that one transported the audience to an immersive space resembling the island full of sand, water and even a live goat roaming the audience, we get a more conventional approach with no goats to be seen. Not all the choices immediately pay off in a show with a loud and slightly jarring beginning followed by a real slow burn as the story began to unfold. While this initially had me worried, it proved beneficial to have as much patience as Ti Moune towards the shows climax as it all paid off in the end. Ola Ince’s direction asks the audience to trust her choices even if they might not immediately make sense. The result of this is a show that builds and builds, getting ever better until it reaches its heartstopping finale.
The stage at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre feels smaller than most productions in a fairly sparse set, designed by Georgia Lowe. Its deceptively simple design makes way for some fantastic reveals with a versatile approach as rigs turn into mirrors and some incredibly impressive special effects make the stage burn with a visual flare. While it might have been nice to see a stage full of sand, this production demands you use your imagination and helps you out along the way with some inspired choices, always visually beautiful. This is elevated by some glorious lighting from Jessica Hung Han Yun which especially comes to prominence as the show continues and the sky gets darker.
Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy’s choreography fills some of the larger numbers with brilliant movement infusing culture into the mix and creating satisfying moments. Not all elements are equally impressive, unfortunately. The costume designs could be improved, never quite matching the quality of the story though they do get better in the glamorous ball scene, while some props, particularly in ‘The Sad Tale Of The Beauxhommes’ runs the risk of cheapening the production as well as confuse the tone.
Gabrielle Brooks leads the cast as Ti Moune, delivering an exceptional performance that continually showcases her phenomenal talents and impresses consistently. With a mix of fantastic vocals and heartfelt and authentic acting, she gives a believable performance in a truly charismatic turn which solidified her abilities as a leading lady on the stage. Undoubtedly the best thing about the production, this is a performance I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
Stephenson Ardern-Sodje may spend most of his time on stage unconscious but the moments he is awake allows him to perform a beautiful take on Ti Moune’s love interest Daniel. The four Gods, played by Anelisa Lamola (Asaka), Ashley Samuels (Agwe), Lejaun Sheppard (Papa Ge) and Emilie Louise Israel (Erzulie) are another highlight of a talented cast, getting moments to shine on stage collaboratively and individually.
The music by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty is part of what has made Once On This Island such an enduring classic. Gabrielle Brooks gets to try her hand at some outstanding numbers with early number ‘Waiting For Love’ a standout. Anelisa Lamola brought the house down with a storming ‘Mama Will Provide’ while Emilie Louise Israel shone with a breathtakingly beautiful take on ‘The Human Heart’.
Once On This Island is a show I hold close to my heart from my previous experience with the show. While this is a very different production that may lack some of the spectacular elements of the last one I saw, it retains the essential elements of the story and tells it with all the heart required of it. Bringing something new to the story, it may not grasp you straight away but it is worth sticking with as the end result is something truly beautiful. With stunning songs and a remarkable cast, wonderfully led by Gabrielle Brooks, this is a great start for this years season at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and has me excited for what the rest has in store.
Once On This Island plays at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 10th June. Tickets from openairtheatre.com
Photos by Marc Brenner