Once on This Island at Slidell Little Theatre through May 2
When you enter the Slidell Little Theatre for Once on This Island, a small waterfall is cascading onstage. It draws you into this tale set on a Caribbean island, a love story filtered through the twin lens of racism and classism, and one where the Gods must always be satisfied.
Eventually, the waterfall subsides, the better to hear the performers. Midway through Act One on Opening Night, however, a steady drumming enveloped the auditorium. Had the Loas (Haitian gods or spirits) become agitated? Or were they encouraging the production in their own knowing god-like way?
While it turned out to be a freakish April hailstorm, I’d like to think that the Gods of theater were signaling their approval of this Island, exuberantly sung and danced by a cast of Slidellians.
Premiering off-Broadway in 1990, Once on This Island then moved to Broadway where it received 8 Tony nominations, including Best Musical, and had a healthy year-plus run.
Based upon Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love which, in turn, was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Once on This Island tells of Ti Moune, an orphan girl raised by a good-hearted couple, who falls in love with the playboy son of the island’s richest family after his car crashes near her home and she nurses him back to health. At the risk of a spoiler, in Lynn Ahrens’ book, love, unfortunately, does not conquer all.
In some ways, Once on This Island is an odd little musical. Its tropical rhythms, notably the opener We Dance and the joyous Mama Will Provide, and endearing heroine draw you into its fantastical world. Yet its presentational style and composer Stephen Flaherty’s inability to create more memorable tunes prevent one from getting fully involved. And you desperately want to call out to Ti Moune that Daniel, her man crush, just ain’t worth her eternal love.
Still, I can happily report that Slidell Little Theatre’s Island is the best version the New Orleans area has yet seen of it. Adam Landry’s set nicely lays out separate realms for the four Loas (Erzulie/Goddess of Love, Agwe/God of Water, Asaka/Mother of the Earth, and Papa Ge/Demon of Death) while allowing the central playing space to be transformed into a variety of locales.
Director Jennifer Baptiste creates stage magic whether by having the cast come together to create a moving car, utilizing rear screen projection for marvelous shadow effects, or making folks quickly appear and disappear. Even with the addition of an intermission, the show’s momentum keeps you involved throughout, yet never at the sacrifice of clearly delineating the plot.
Music Director Aaron Turnipseed has done an admirable job of blending the cast’s voices though, occasionally, the recorded music does overpower the unmiked singers. Choreographer Tianna Pourciau Sykes’ dances, recalling the renowned Katherine Dunham, are imaginative and done with verve and precision. Together, they and Baptiste capture the mix of joy and sadness inherent to this work.
Olivia Landry makes Ti Moune slightly more reserved than usual, allowing her doubts and hopes to play out gently on her face. She has a crystal clear soprano, but it’s a bit thin and she sometimes needs to project more. Given, however, that she’s currently a high school junior (at NOCCA), it could be that her voice is still developing.
Daniel may be a cad, but triple threat actor/singer/dancer Jeremy Lloyd’s infectious smile allows you to understand why Ti Moune would fall for him. And his six-pack abs don’t hurt either.
As Ti Moune’s Mama Euralie, Mariah Strickland combines motherly strength and tenderness enveloped by beautiful vocals; not surprisingly, she has a career that has taken her from coast to coast. Could Broadway be next?
The four Loas work extremely well together–the lovely Thais Kitchens as Erzulie; Steven Burke, Sr. as Agwe with his regal baritone voice; Hannah Alexis, devilish as Papa Ge; and Rebekah Alphonso, bringing down the house with Mama Will Provide.
Ayvah Johnson doesn’t steal the show–she’s too much of a team player for that–but as the Young Ti Moune as well as the Little Girl to whom the story is being told, she is absolutely adorable and, on stage throughout, always throughly involved and reacting appropriately while never overacting as some child actors are wont to do.
Earl Poole (Ti Moune’s father), Sami Sabbagh (Daniel’s father), Skylar Broussard (Daniel’s fiancée) and the entire ensemble all make positive contributions.
I could observe that Act One ended abruptly and oddly. And that while Daniel’s two-tier family mansion was quite impressive, paint cans could be seen on the second floor landing; whether they were meant to convey that the residence was getting a touch-up or were just left there after the set was painted, I don’t know. I’d like to think that both of these will be adjusted for the final two weekends’ performances.
If you can’t get away to the Caribbean just yet, a visit to Slidell and Once on This Island might well suffice. And let’s hope that the only “hailing” you’ll encounter will be from fellow audience members’ applause.
Once on This Island plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm at Slidell Little Theatre (2024 Nellie Dr.). Tickets and more info at www.SlidellLittleTheatre.org
The Medium presented by New Orleans Opera online through May 15
New Orleans Opera (NOO) had intended to present Gian Carlo Menotti’s two-act, one-hour opera The Medium live. You-know-what got in the way, however, and the decision was made to film it and stream it online. With music recorded at Esplanade Studios, whose team videotaped the performance at NOO’s H. Lloyd Hawkins Scenic Studio, the result proved that it was a good call indeed.
James Marvel directed this gripping tale of Madame Flora, a bogus psychic who may have had a life-changing encounter…or did she just imagine it? Set in her unassuming, realistically detailed apartment, Marvel added, against the rear wall, black-and-white projections of such things as hands resting on a table during a seance, a streetscape with a full moon, and images of the departed. During the seance, he gave the attendees stylized movements, further veering away from a naturalistic approach.
Such expressionistic touches, along with Mandi Wood’s atmospheric lighting, worked by bestowing a sumptuousness on what could otherwise have been a visually static production. If occasionally the projections (Heavenly glowings! Floating, jellyfish-like orbs!) seemed a tad much for a two-bit psychic like Flora, and Nathan Arthur’s set, tho small, appeared a trifle too expansive for what should be a cramped apartment, such quibbles can easily be overlooked.
What can’t be overlooked is the pungency of Menotti’s score, a combination of lyrical romanticism and enough spiky modernism to keep it engaging and prevent it from seeming old-fashioned 75 years after its premiere. NOO Artistic Director Robert Lyall, for whom this has been a passion project, conducted a 14-piece ensemble made up of Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra members and, as always, gave a commanding account of the score bringing out both its dissonant and more comforting moments with equal expertise.
Metropolitan Opera veteran mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood is ideally cast as Madame Flora. With her carrot-orange hair and sensationally expressive face, Livengood, an outstanding singing actress, does not shy away from bringing out the ugly, abusive side of this battleaxe who finds relief in the bottle. One may not entirely sympathize with Livengood’s Flora, but she makes clear she’s a survivor who’s fiercely searching for the truth. I’d love to see Livengood as Mrs. Begbick in Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
New Orleans’ own Sarah Jane McMahon fashions Monica, Flora’s daughter, as the voice of reason as she tries to curb her mother’s excesses. Though complicit in Flora’s charade, McMahon’s gleaming soprano implies that she does so out of familial duty rather than her own venality. With McMahon’s radiant presence and lush voice, one doesn’t mind her arias that, despite their beautiful music, don’t really propel the story.
All three of Madame Flora’s clients, Amy Pfrimmer and Dennis Jesse as Mr. & Mrs. Gobineau, who use her to connect with their long-dead son, and Kathryn Frady as Mrs. Nolan, who hopes to contact her recently deceased daughter, bring plush velvety tones to their singing and balance theatrical movements with sincere emotions. If one wonders how such people are so easily taken in by a Madame Flora, the irony is that they don’t believe her when she finally tells them the truth.
Only Carlo Barrera as Toby, a young mute Gypsy boy Flora and Monica have taken in after encountering him on the streets of Budapest, seems a bit out of place. Sure, it’s a thankless, too precious role (Why is he always dressing up as a pirate? And what is the exact nature of his relationship with Monica?), but Barrera does nothing to play against its twee-ness. Still, you empathize with him during his final, riveting showdown with Flora even as you wish he would respond in some sort of way to her false accusations.
Videographers Travis Marc and Daniel Perez keep things simple with three basic camera angles (full stage, medium and close-up) that get the job done. Audio Engineer Misha Kachkachishvili provides superb sound quality.
Sung in English with subtitles so you don’t miss a single lyric, The Medium bears repeated viewings from beginning to its striking finale. And much as one appreciates live performances, by being online, you can enjoy it repeatedly…until May 15.
For tickets and additional information, go to https://neworleansopera.org/menottis-the-medium/
A Comedy of Tenors presented by Jefferson Performing Arts Society
It says in the program for A Comedy of Tenors that “Playwright Ken Ludwig has been called American’s [sic] preeminent comic playwright.” If we define “preeminent” as “surpassing all others” one has to wonder if whoever called him that had ever heard of Neil Simon, Robert O’Hara, Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein, Paul Rudnick, Charles Busch, Tyler Perry, Charles Ludlam, etc., etc.
For on the basis of A Comedy of Tenors, one might think that Ludwig, best known for Lend Me a Tenor, might’ve been a writer during the Golden Age of Comedy who only managed to achieve bronze status.
As Tenors has already concluded its run at Jefferson Performing Arts Center, let’s just say that this so-called comic play, which takes place in 1936 in a posh Parisian hotel suite, is, astoundingly, almost devoid of verbal humor, especially if you ignore its cliches, cheesy jokes, coarse elements, and dated references (which sometimes combine as with a “Bing-o Crosby” punch line). To give credit where it’s due, however, as farce, Ludwig knows how to set up the requisite wacky misunderstandings and door-slamming tomfoolery.
That said, Director and native New Orleanian Anthony Laciura, who has had a long and distinguished career with the Metropolitan Opera, engineered as good a job as could be expected, knowingly getting whatever humor could be mined from this ridiculousness of operatic proportions.
The cast did all that was asked of them to make this as entertaining an evening as possible.
Wayne Gonsoulin and Enrico Cannella, as an impresario and his assistant-turned-opera-singer-but-still-working-as-his-assistant, displayed great comic timing whenever the script gave them good material to work with.
As Tito, an egomaniacal opera singer and former lothario, Robert Wagner played the one-note role well, but (spoiler alert), the program’s bio section reveals another character name for him; when the plot’s farcical mechanics fully kicked in, Wagner terrifically switched back and forth between the two, skillfully differentiating their opposing personalities.
Broad Brooklyn accent aside, Jake Wynne-Wilson, with his flawless, no-body-fat physique, nicely fulfilled all the requisite qualities of his stock character, i.e. “young man in love”, who here just happens to be an operatic tenor whose star is ascendant.
The female characters are not given as much to do, but JPAS’ actresses all acquitted themselves with flair and talent: Elizabeth Ulloa Lowry as Tito’s alternately sweet and fiery, put-upon wife; Bailey Gabrish as Tito’s winsome daughter who’s engaged to her father’s rival, the aforementioned rising operatic tenor, and whom we first see along with her fiancé in their undies; and Maria Victoria Hefte, so unlike her stoic turn as Nurse Ratched in JPAS’ recent One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, deliriously overacting as a diva and former fling of Tito’s (Note: in a show like this, “overacting” is a perfectly logical and appreciated acting choice).
Ironically, for a farce in which the world of opera just happens to serve as the backdrop, the highlight of the show was when Wagner, Cannella, and Wynne-Wilson came together to sing the well-known brindisi from La traviata, Libiamo ne’ lieti calici. Though I’ve enjoyed many opera performances online in the past year, their open-throated rendition was a reminder that virtually nothing equals the pleasure of hearing glorious singing live. Bravo to all!
For news of JPAS’ upcoming events, including stand-up comedy at its theater in Westwego, go to https://www.jpas.org/