Stage: Once On This Island – Roy Cousens Theatre, Westville Boys’ High School, Durban
– Final performances at 6.30pm today (September 30), 2.30pm and 6.30pm on Saturday (October 1) and 5pm on Sunday (October 2) –
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
THIRTY-ONE years have passed since Durban’s Napac presented the South African premiere of the Broadway success, Once On This Island, at the Playhouse theatre, where a then-21-year-old Steven Stead, sitting in the audience, was so enchanted he dreamed of one day staging his own production.
Fast forward to the present and KickstArt’s Stead, now one of the country’s most respected directors, has realised that dream with a fast-moving, colourful and imaginative production featuring 26 pupils from Westville Boys’ High and Westville Girls’ High, where Stead teaches drama.
This 65-minute version of the Caribbean-set musical is the ‘junior’ production of the hit show and Stead and his zealous, talented young cast have injected it with exuberance and a lot of heart and soul. It is a real treat!
A joyous, yet poignant, coming-of-age tale meshing fairytale and folklore, Once on This Island was created by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team that gave us Seussical The Musical, Ragtime and Anastasia. Based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel, My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, the show also has nods to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
A perfect ensemble piece, the musical unfolds on a stage designed by Stead and created by Greg King, where we meet a group of vibrant island folk and sweet peasant girl Ti Moune, who rescues from drowning, then falls for, Daniel, a wealthy boy from the other side of her island.
It is when Daniel returns to his snobby circles that the (beautifully costumed) fantastical gods that rule the island steer Ti Moune on a quest that tests the might of her love against the strong forces of prejudice, hatred and even death.
While interlaced with themes of racial and class division, essentially the show is a celebration of love, hope and spirituality – and it earns bonus points not only for its constant flow of catchy pop-Calypso beats and heartwarming balladry, but for underscoring the healing power of telling stories in an effervescent finale routine.
Featuring lighting designed by Tina le Roux, musical direction by Roland Perold and well-executed choreography by Stead and Evashnee Pillay, the show has standout moments in the vibey, group song-dance routines and clever use of props which include puppet birds (take a bow, Peter Court) and cheerleader shakers to depict rain.
All in the cast perform with gusto and obvious enjoyment, but special mention must be made of Nkanyezi Kunene as Ti Moune, who has presence and a lovely voice; as well as the highly expressive, good-voiced Amahle Tembe as Asaka, Goddess of Earth. I also enjoyed the subtle approaches to their performances by Amahle Senamile Ngcobo and Kamvelihle Mathe, as Ti Moune’s elderly guardians.
Once On This Island will leave you with a wide smile and a great sense of appreciation for the work Stead, and others of his ilk, do to keep the arts alive and electric at a time when it has been struggling more than ever globally. So please lend your support!
The musical has final performances at 6.30pm today (September 30), 2.30pm and 6.30pm on Saturday (October 1) and 5pm on Sunday (October 2). Tickets are priced from R60 and R100 and can be bought online via Webtickets,