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  • Writer's pictureFrank Schierloh

REVIEW: Once On This Island (Arden Theatre Company, Philadelphia PA)

A magnificent celebration of talent and humanity. 

The Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia closes out its season with a tremendous production of the Aherns and Flaherty musical Once on this Island. The significance of this show being produced now, at a time when there is so much turmoil in many different corners of the world is particularly poignant. The show has many themes that can be drawn from it, but one of the key elements is hope: a hope that while things are hard, there is a human connection, kindness, love, and perseverance that will help get us through to see a new day. The Arden’s latest production will send audiences on a journey of the Gods’ design that is achingly beautiful, whimsical, and a good reminder of the strength that one wields when armed with love and hope. 


And On This Island

Once On this Island is a 1990 musical written by Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty. It premiered on Broadway to acclaim, and has become a staple amongst high schools and regional theatres since then. It tells the story of the orphan Ti Moune, a dark-skinned peasant girl, who falls in love with Daniel, a wealthy light-skinned boy. Ti Moune is then sent on a journey by the Gods, facing many challenges and choices throughout which test her love and perseverance. There is a lot of emotional heft to lift from the show, with its many messages and motifs, yet it remains an easily accessible show; this is likely one of many reasons that it is frequently produced. 

Another reason for its popularity is the score. Aherns and Flaherty have a knack for writing some wonderful musical theatre scores, like Ragtime and Seussical, and this is one of their bests. With the fiery opening of “We Dance,”  the yearning want of “Waiting for Life,” and the somber devastation of “Part of Us,” this score runs the gamut of human emotion and experience. Structurally, the show does hit a snag about two thirds of the way through, where there are too many mid-tempo ballads in sequence, but that is a small complaint when the score is so strong in other places. 

A photo from the Arden Theatre Company's 2024 production of Once on this Island.
Ti Moune (Nadia Ra'Shaun), and Ensemble in Arden Theatre Company's 2024 Production of Once on this Island. Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studio.

The Gods Heard Our Prayers

The Arden’s staging is truly stellar, making the performance space feel bigger and more vast than I have ever seen there. Helmed by Amina Robinson and choreographed by Devon Sinclair, this production fully embraces the script and sets it amongst the turmoil of current struggles happening in Haiti. Using this setting to highlight the show’s insistence on hope, love, and basic human compassion for one another is a decidedly smart choice. It allows for the fantastical aspects of the show to feel grounded and real in a way that helps them soar. Lighting by Alyssandra Docherty, Sound by Liz Atkinson, and Costumes by LeVonne Lindsay are all top notch, and help highlight Robinson’s vision and Sinclair’s eclectic, kinetic, gripping movements. The set by David P. Gordon is also visually stunning, though does occasionally feel too big for the intimacy of the story.

Robinson has assembled a true celebration of talent on this stage. The entire ensemble works magically together, weaving in and out of characters with ease, all the while sounding and looking amazing. The whole ensemble is a stand out, but certain performances deserve even further acclaim. Chabrelle Williams as Mama Euralie has an absolutely phenomenal voice, while also imbuing her character with a warmth and tenderness that is so genuine and heartfelt. Her vocal runs and improv during key moments, particularly the song "Pray", hit right to the core and give chills. The Gods (Asaka played by Tiara Greene, Papa Ge played by Jessica Johnson, Erzulie played by Ryane Nicole Studivant, and Agwe played by Curtis Wiley) each present magnificent performances. Greene and Studivant give powerhouse vocals in their respective solos, and carry much of the joy and light the show conveys. Wiley’s presence and movements are engaging, and the way he works his long trench coat is wonderful. Meanwhile, Johnson’s cavalier coolness, intimidation and then genuine sympathy for Ti Moune at the end makes for an always eye pulling performance. Nadia Ra'Shaun is also delightful as Ti Moune, she has an effervescent quality that immediately makes her engaging to watch. Each performer in this fantastic cast gets their moment to shine, and it’s truly terrific to see. 

A photo from Arden Theatre Company's 2024 production of Once on this Island.
Ti Moune (Nadia Ra'Shaun), Asaka (Tiara Greene) and Ensemble in Arden Theatre Company's 2024 Production of Once on this Island. Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studio.

To say that the Arden Theatre Company’s production of this musical is a triumph would be an understatement. From casting to staging, lights, sets, and costumes, this production fires on all cylinders. It is a tremendous success, and all involved should be extremely proud of the work they’re doing. This production charms the crowd into rooting for Ti Moune and endears us all to her story of love overcoming any and all obstacles. The timing of this production could not be more perfect, as it reminds us that even in the darkest hours, we should have hope. 

Once On this Island is on stage at

The Arden Theatre Company

(40 N. 2nd Street) 

from now until June 23rd, 2024.

For more information visit

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