REVIEW: “Once on This Island” at WAC takes audience on an immersive journey

Kyle Ramar Freeman as Asaka and Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune in “Once on This Island” / Courtesy photo

Good theater takes us someplace. Whether this journey is emotional, visual or otherwise, it must be immersive to push us ahead. Then we can suspend our belief for the stage, letting others guide our way through the magic.

And so it is with “Once on This Island” onstage at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville through Feb. 16.

The show takes place on an island in the French Antilles where the inhabitants live in a dichotomy. The peasants cobble together an existence on one part of the island, and the rich French landowners live on the other side, shielded from such people. Like we have seen recently with the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, this fictional island, called only “The Jewel of the Antilles” can be a bullseye for dangerous weather with devastating results.

What: “Once on This Island”
When: Through Feb. 16
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost:  Starting at $40 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or
Note: On-stage seating starts at $25, but some restrictions apply

During one particularly violent storm, a young girl is comforted by the tale of another young girl who has gone before her. This is our “Once on This Island,” and we spend the rest of the musical telling the tale of the peasant girl Ti Moune (played in Fayetteville by Courtnee Carter).

As she grows into young womanhood, Ti Moune wonders what exists beyond her peasant community. She sees a link to somewhere else when one of the French aristocrats – Daniel Beauxhommes, played by Tyler Hardwick – races past the village in his car. So Ti Moune prays to her gods to bring them together.

The four gods of the island respond, but barter amongst themselves for how to intercede. The god of water (Agwe, played by Jahmaul Bakare) provides a rainstorm to make for dangerous conditions. And the god of love (Erzulie, played by Cassondra James) clashes with the demon of death (Papa Ge, played by former “American Idol” contestant Tamyra Gray) about which is more powerful. Erzulie gives the girl love, but Papa Ge gets her say on the outcome too – Ti Moune will eventually have to choose between love and death. The fourth god, mother of the earth (Asaka, played by Kyle Ramar Freeman), promises she will provide for Ti Moune on her journey.

Members of the ensemble, called Storytellers, guide us through the proceedings in a musical that runs less than 90 minutes and has no intermission. The touring show comes directly from the Tony Award-winning revival of the show, which first came to Broadway in 1990 and returned in 2017.

The show stretches the limits of what’s possible in theater. It features sand on the stage floor, and fire and water are prominently used as well. The Storytellers typically sit around the arounds, adding to the ambiance of the show or making noises that contributed to the soundtrack. In this way, it reminded me of the musical “Once,” as almost every cast member is involved at almost all times.

The Broadway revival was staged at the Circle in the Square theater in a theater-in-the-round environment. Care is made to bring the audience closer to the action in the touring version. There’s no orchestra pit, as members of the band flank the stage on various platforms. Under one of those platforms is a seating area for audience members, and during each show several theater goers sit on the stage just feet from the cast members. I’d guess there were about 50 spots onstage for audience members.

Jahmaul Bakare as Agwe in “Once on This Island” / Courtesy photo

If you remember the gods’ providence on the island, you’ll know the four foundational pillars of our story. There’s love and death and the earth and the relentless power of storms. You could take a date to watch this show on Valentine’s weekend for that story of love.

But there are unpleasant undercurrents, too. The bifurcation of the island’s residents is a prominent part of the story. It’s handled both directly and delicately, and the subtle treatments are the kind of details that have outsized impact. There’s a small but heartbreaking moment where our peasant protagonist is coerced to dance at the Beauxhommes estate. But she’s wobbly in her proper shoes. She then removes the shoes and hands them off to a servant, who refuses to take them as the divide between peasant and proper is already forming anew. There are similar fault lines present on the matters of race and power dynamics.

You can tell a little bit about the quality (and perhaps internal camaraderie) of the show by seeing how many of the cast members pick up from Broadway and travel with the first tour. There are several such actors in this touring show. Courtnee Carter made her Broadway debut with “Once on This Island.” Phillip Boykin, who plays Tonton Julian, the adoptive father of Ti Moune, had this same role on Broadway. And Tamyra Gray, who took over the role of the demon Papa Ge while the show was still on Broadway, resumed her role for the tour. All three were excellent, strong of voice and compelling.

No, this immersive, innovative visit to the island isn’t purely a vacation. But it does make for a good story. I think you’ll find it worth the trip, too.