The choreography. So good! I can’t write anything about the new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Once On This Island” without first mentioning the wonderful dancing. Not only are Joshua Montgomery’s smooth, Caribbean-infused moves as graceful and hypnotic as a gently swaying palm tree, the dancers themselves are impressive. I love their rhythms, their physical technique, and, more than anything, their togetherness, both in movement and in spirit — they dance as if they’re part of a greater whole.
“Once On This Island,” which runs through July 22 at the Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium, is the “bigger kids” show this summer for CMT. (And, indeed, the age of the cast members spill into their early 20s.) I don’t write traditional reviews of CMT productions (other than critiquing the adult creative team), but I often share some of the things I really liked. Here are five highlights of this clever and moving production:
The ambiance. From the moment you walk into the theater, the place has an island vibe. Clotheslines with vibrant fabrics criss-cross above the heads of the audience. Two friendly palm trees on either side of the stage frame the performance space. Once the play begins, Dan Aldape’s cheerful and vivid lighting design — all the colors of shaved ice and more — cast a warm glow. (Room for improvement: the use of follow spots, which clunk up what is otherwise a smooth and sophisticated design.) Aldape’s set is clever and often quite sumptuous. The market scene outside the Hotel Beauxhomme in the second act, with street vendors working their stalls, was one of my favorite tableaux.
The car crash. “Once On This Island” is the story of Ti Moune (a sweet and vibrant Caitlyn Lopez), a peasant girl who believes that the gods have destined her for great things. When a wealthy young man named Daniel (Joshua Bravo, in fine voice) crashes his car, Ti Moune decides that her purpose is to nurse him back to health. The crash itself is just one bit of Montgomery’s clever staging, but it stuck with me: Two ensemble members act as “headlights” as we see Daniel’s near-fatal accident unfold.
The parents. There are some fine performances in the show, from a radiant Jada Evans as Andrea — another of the island’s wealthy caste — to Hannah Huyck as a sly Papa Ge, the god of death. Two of the standouts are Erika Balakid and Jacob Moon as Ti Moune’s parents. Balakid brings a weary but vibrant sadness to her role as a mother grappling with her daughter growing up. And Moon is charismatic (and in impressive voice) as the father. (Vocal coach Shannah Estep’s work with the entire cast is to be commended.)
Fatima Avila’s performance of “Human Heart.” Speaking of stellar vocals, Avila’s Erzulie — the goddess of love — gives a knockout rendition of this touching tune. Avila has abundant talent, and I’m excited to see what she can do with it.
And, finally, I single out one of the hard-working ensemble “storytellers.” From the moment he takes the stage, Diego Cavares is hard to miss, whether he’s joyfully flinging his arms skyward in “We Dance” to stamping out the rhythms of “Rain.” But it’s more than him just excelling at the choreography. Cavares has an exuberant stage presence that makes him seem fully invested and present in every moment. I really believed him as a peasant whose hard life is given structure and meaning by the gods. Cavares’ dedication to musical theater, along with the efforts of his fellow cast members, bring magic to this “Island.”
“Once On This Island,” through July 22, Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Tickets are $14-$22.
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