Based on the novel My Love, My Love, or the Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, Once on This Island is a one-act musical retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, set in the French Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean. The show premiered on Broadway in 1990, and the West End in 1994, where it won the Olivier for Best New Musical. The show is the opening production for this year’s season at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. 

Lynn Ahren’s book tells the story of Ti Moune (Gabrielle Brooks) a peasant girl, who falls in love with rich boy Daniel (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje) and makes a deal with the gods to save his life, trading in her own. There are themes of love, racial division, and social and economic caste systems interwoven throughout the show.

Georgia Lowe’s staging is minimal, posts are dotted around the stage which are used to climb on, and later mirrors are revealed on one side of them, which create a truly stunning visual of neon-coloured lights flooding the space, a pure spectacle when the last rays of the sun finally leave, surrounding the open-air theatre in darkness. This venue really does have an atmosphere unlike any other.

However, I do feel that more could have been done to transport us to the Caribbean, although Melissa Simon-Hartman’s costumes are vibrant, the contrast between this and the dark staging is slightly jarring. The costumes resemble both of the periods and classes incorporated, with the modern-day costumes having an authentic look and feel to them. Asaka the Goddess of the Earth’s costume is perfectly apt, adorned with flowers and a grass skirt, however, the slits on the skirt’s sides mean the black leggings underneath are visible, somewhat dampening a beautiful costume.

The opening number could have had a more subtle start, with the characters selling their wares entering one by one, using the entire space more, and interacting with the audience more, rather than having them all burst onstage at once, would have built an atmosphere much more effectively.

Where this production shines is in the performances by the cast. Everyone is faultless, but the true highlight is Brooks, who shines in the principal role, delivering powerhouse vocals in ‘Waiting for Life’, and playing a loveable Ti Moune. The chemistry between Brooks and Arden-Sodje is electric, their scenes together sizzlingly sensual. Anelisa Lamola’s soulful vocals during ‘Mama Will Provide’ are stunning.

Ola Ince’s production is a slow burn, with the first half somewhat sauntering along, the plot relatively confusing to follow, however, it really comes into its own, finding its way in the last 20 minutes, with some fully cohesive and visually stunning scenes. I do feel that the plot requires some prior knowledge of the show, otherwise, it could be difficult to keep up with.

Stephen Flaherty’s music is lively and catchy, with a variety of percussion instruments the sounds of the Caribbean truly come to life. However, by the end of the show I’m unsure whether any particular musical numbers stand out, the performances sure do, but not the songs themselves; perhaps due to the sheer number of songs embedded, 20 within a 90-minute show feels like overkill, and I’m unsure if 3 reprises are truly necessary.

Some tweaks in the creative decisions made would have elevated the production and created a fully cohesive show. However, Once on This Island has faultless performances and some visually stunning moments, in a beautiful venue

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once on This Island is on at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until the 10th June 2023 – tickets and info here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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