Tag Archives: Tamyra Gray

Soul and Spirit of the Caribbean in a Ramshackle Village

Review: Once on This Island

By Perry Tannenbaum


The Company of the North American Tour of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. Photo by Joan Marcus. 2019

Early in the colorful Tony Award-winning revival of Once on This Island, we learn what differentiates the upper-class grand hommes of this French Antilles fantasyland from the darker-skinned impoverished peasants they have shunned. The upper crust have their money, their steady flow of rich tourists, their fine champagne, their Frenchified style, and their mastery of their own fates. The peasants in this jewel of the Caribbean? They have their religion. They pray to their gods of earth, water, and love who rule their lives – along with the demon of death.

They remain remarkably upbeat despite finding themselves at the mercy of merciless deities: “And if the gods decide to send a hurricane… we dance!” Or so they sing.

In her adaptation of Rosa Guy’s My Love, My Love, Lynn Ahrens and her peasant islanders retain their sunniness even though they live and narrate a tragic tale. Shimmering with steel drums and assorted Caribbean percussion, Stephen Flaherty’s score is on the same radiant page. After the opening “We Dance” cited above, even the most dramatic songs, like “Pray” and “Forever Yours,” almost always have an uptempo episode. As “Some Say” hints, you’re blessed if you merely end up “in a story or a song.”

Once on This Island

For the plucky islanders, the glass is always at least half full. Ti Moun arrives near the home of Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie as wee girl, perched up in a tree after the storm and tide that washed away her native village deposits her there. Tonton and Mama adopt her as soon as they confirm that she can speak. Instead of fretting over or mourning her ancestors, Ti Moun grows up thinking that her miraculous survival signals that the gods have a special purpose for her.

It comes when Daniel Beauxhomme comes riding along during another bad storm and crashes his car on the beach. While the smitten Ti Moun is desperately nursing Daniel back to health, Papa Ge – the demon of death – comes to claim him and break her heart. Ti Moun shocks the demon by offering up her life in exchange for his. Love beyond love.

The story that plays out afterwards; with echoes of Little Mermaid, Romeo and Juliet, and a couple of choice pagan myths retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; breaks Ti Moun’s heart anyway. At this most vulnerable moment, she has a second grim encounter with Papa Ge – and once again, she thwarts the demon. After that, we see that, in a hopelessly endlessly downtrodden way, Ti Moun truly is a favorite of the gods. Especially if being in a song and a story is sufficient proof.

You can’t replicate the campfire configuration of Circle in the Square, the Broadway theater where This Island was revived, so the intimate community feel of the show hasn’t made it intact to Belk Theater. But there’s a storytelling vibe in Ahrens’ book and ten Storytellers in director Michael Arden’s touring production. Scenic designer Dave Laffrey also provides a considerable amount of audience seating onstage at the fringes of his ramshackle set, and Arden adds a whirl of pre-show activity and buzz from his actors.

I suspected that the onstage spectators were plucked from the rear of the uppermost balcony, for I didn’t spy many other empty seats on opening night. A full house also nurtures that community feel, and word-of-mouth will no doubt extend the welcome of this cheery, warm-hearted entertainment.

Once on This Island

Complementing the ramshackle scenery are the makeshift Clint Ramos costume designs, enabling the peasantry to transform into gods simply by accessorizing. The most amusing transformation occurs when Kyle Ramar Freeman dons his Mother of Earth skirt as Asaka. But make no mistake, Jahmaul Bakare as Agwe and Cassondra James as Erzulie have no less flair as the God of Water and the Goddess of Love. Arden’s concept seems to want the gods both ways, earthy peasants and mighty deities at the same time.

Ahrens and Flaherty chime in well with this transparently folkloric attitude. “Some Say” offers multiple variants on how Ti Moun survived the arduous journey across the island to the grand hommes’s stronghold – implying that religion is storytelling, but so genially that few will realize their values are being challenged.

Breathing life, hope, and a sunburst of energy into all this Caribbean mythmaking is UNC School of the Arts grad Courtnee Carter as Ti Moun, dressed in flaming red from the moment she makes her star entrance, supplanting the precocious Mimi Crossland (alternating with Mariana Diop) playing the toddler Ti. Carter brings us the simplicity of Ti Moun’s purposefulness and the steadfast power of her conviction. “I know this,” she tells the villagers who advise her against nursing Daniel back to life: this is why the gods placed her here.

Carter belts her climactic ballad compellingly, though “Forever Yours” isn’t really special melodically, and when Papa Ge’s intrusion quickens the tempo just as a recovering Daniel has joined Ti Moun in duet, Carter’s “take my life – my soul – for his!” is heart-stopping and fearless. Tamyra Gray as Papa Ge gets the last fiendish cackle in this song and proves to be a formidable adversary, relishing her macabre stealth and her monstrous ashen costume.

Recumbent, recuperating, and rejecting, Michael Ivan Carrier never quite gets the chance to show us that Daniel is worthy of Ti Moun’s epic adoration. Get over it. Carrier does get the chance to show us he’s more textured than most Prince Charmings. Similarly, Ahrens and Flaherty provide meatier roles for Ti Moun’s adoptive parents than you’ll see for parents or stepparents of most Cinderellas and Sleeping Beautys. In “One Small Girl” and “Ti Moun,” Philip Boykin and Danielle Lee Graves demonstrate that Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie are as much the soul of the island as the gods.

The Roads Both Taken

Theater review: If/Then

By Perry Tannenbaum

Unless you’ve been stubbornly clinging to some medieval idea of predestination, you’ve probably realized that the unfolding of your life, like human history, is simply one actuality plucked from an infinite number of possibilities. There are so many profound, iffy, or split-second decisions along the way that could have led you to different outcomes, so many instances of split-second timing that could have put you in different places – or in different company.

If/Then (Jackie Burns)

  • If/Then (Jackie Burns)

Brian Yorkey’s book for If/Then, with music by Tom Kitt, isn’t the first script to show us what happens if a single stitch in history is dropped. It’s a Wonderful Life demonstrated the difference a single person can make in the lives surrounding him and in a town’s destiny. Back to the Future was a sci-fi study of a how the slightest tweak of the past can resonate – and radiate – for generations to come.
Yorkey gives us an evening-long double exposure for just a few years in the life of Elizabeth. A talented woman with city planning creds, Elizabeth bumps into two old chums in Madison Square Park when she returns to New York after divorcing her husband in Phoenix. Lucas is a bisexual old flame who is hyper-seriously immersed in activism, while Kate is a gregarious lesbian who’s an ace kindergarten teacher.

Hinging on whether she picks up a cell phone call or not, Elizabeth either leaves the park with the intention of meeting Lucas or Kate that night. Meeting Lucas, she becomes Beth, the powerful city planner. Or she’ll rendezvous with Kate – on a course to become Liz, meet a future husband, drift into teaching and motherhood, and wear glasses to make herself look smarter.

Scenes in Beth’s life and Liz’s life dissolve into one another as the glasses come on and off, lightly pointing out the joys and sacrifices of both career and family. At times, scenes merge – at Elizabeth’s birthday party or in her bedroom. Sound confusing? It is.

After seeing Idina Menzel star as Elizabeth on Broadway, I found it much easier to track Liz and Beth’s separate lives in the touring version now at Belk Theater. Yet after concentrating so hard on sorting out the Beth path from the Liz path, I still had to confront Yorkey’s confusing loop back to Madison Square Park at the end of the night – and the numinous haze that Elizabeth’s best friends had been turned into.

For the paths Elizabeth takes affect the destinies of both Lucas and Kate. In one scenario, Liz’s future husband introduces Lucas to his future husband, and in the other scenario, Beth is there to prevent Kate from divorcing her wife. In the welter of Kitt’s power ballads, the ones Liz sings so much like Beth’s, the background and the whole point begin to get blurry.

On Broadway, Menzel appeared to be a self-absorbed superstar condescending to play two mere mortals most of the night. I actually like Jackie Burns better on the tour. Yes, Burns turns every one of her ballads into an American Idol extravaganza as Menzel did, adoring her own voice to the point of frequently obliterating Yorkey’s lyrics, but she invests herself more in Liz and Beth between ballads, and we can feel more for her when her hearts are broken. True, her climactic “Always Starting Over” isn’t the three-act opera Menzel made of it, but her “What the Fuck?” just might be a little more comical – because Burns is more inclined toward vulnerability.

As Lucas, Anthony Rapp gets to be tender in the Beth scenario, singing “You Don’t Need to Love Me.” Opposite Liz, Lucas is more appealing and domestic, responding to the more romantically inclined David (Marc Delacruz) in the “Best Worst Mistake” duet. But apart from his opposition and cynicism when Beth accepts a high-powered government job, Lucas doesn’t really figure in the important dialectic.

That’s where Kate and Josh come in. When Liz runs into her future husband for a second time in a subway car, it’s Kate who tells her that the universe is trying to send her a message in “It’s a Sign” – and that Josh is the messenger. Combatting Liz’s rationality, Tamyra Gray has the kooky energy you’d expect from a prize-winning schoolteacher who proudly consults her horoscope and believes in fate.

Seen first in military camo after a tour of duty overseas, David either does or doesn’t encounter Elizabeth at the right split second in the park, but it turns out that he combines brawn and brains when he does, for he’s a surgeon. His arguments against Liz’s rationalism and her actuarial calculations of probability are more eloquent in “You Never Know” and more existential in the “Here I Go” duet.

Matthew Hydzik keenly understands the connection between those songs as Josh, and he brings out what is compelling about their arguments better than his Broadway counterpart. Statistics aside, we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, and any tough but important decision we make in life will always be an intrepid plunge into the unknown. Even when things don’t work exactly as we hoped and planned – which is what the odds truly favor – it’s questionable that we’d want a do-over. For what we experience becomes who we are.

That’s pretty much what Liz is telling us in “Always Starting Over.”

Now do Elizabeth’s forking paths offer us a fresh insight – or are they an effective way to underscore the preciousness and suspense of every moment that we live? I’m only slightly more convinced the second time around. People that I overheard leaving Belk Theater on opening night were more preoccupied with figuring out what had happened than what it meant.