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ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, the first-ever Shea’s production is a non-stop 90-minute glory

THE BASICS:  ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, the 1990 musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, directed and choreographed by Naila Ansari, presented by Shea’s (their first ever production!) runs until October 2, Thursdays-Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2. Shea’s 710 Main Theatre is located at 710 Main Street at the corner of Tupper in downtown Buffalo’s “Theatre District.” (716) 847-1410 or visit sheas.org

Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  From the Tony Award-winning songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (SEUSSICAL, RAGTIME, ANASTASIA) we get a Caribbean-based musical that is roughly a re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” wherein Ti Moune (Zhanna Reed), a peasant girl in the French Antilles is adopted by Mama Euralie (Danielle N. Green) and Tonton Julian (George Brown), then is caught up in a contest between Erzulie, the goddess of Love versus Papa Gé, the demon of death.  Under their spell she falls in love with a rich boy from the other side of the island, Daniel Beauxhomme (Rafael Rodriguez).  When he crashes his car, she nurses him to health and makes a deal with the gods to save his life, or, to put it another way, to cheat death.  I think you can see where this is going. In 2018 it won the Best Revival of a Musical Tony Award for a Broadway run that New York Times critic Jesse Green described as “ravishing.”  And that’s a good word for this local production, Shea’s first-ever self-produced event.  It’s a hit.  

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Where to begin?  Having just come back from The Stratford Festival where color-rich casting is imperative, not just a gesture, I was wondering how Buffalo was going to up its game and show us more inclusion.  Wow.  What a statement this show makes with an almost 100% BIPOC cast and crew.  It’s chock-a-block filled with Caribbean music (Karen Saxon, Music Director) and beautiful women dancing (Naila Ansari, Choreography) in stunning costumes (Philicia Dove; Black Monarchy LLC).  

Photo by Kelsey Martinez

Karen Saxon is also the Music Director at the Ujima Theater where Naila Ansari is also the Dance Director.  Ujima Company Inc is “a multi-ethnic and multicultural professional theatre whose primary purpose is the preservation, perpetuation, and performance of African American theatre ….”  In the past, you’d have to go to either Ujima (on Plymouth Avenue on “The West Side” of Main Street) or the Paul Robeson Theatre (on Masten Avenue on “The East Side” of Main Street) but with ONCE ON THIS ISLAND you get this phenomenal explosion of color in cast and crew right ON Main Street.  What’s the address of “Shea’s 710 Theatre?”  Oh yeah, 710 Main Street, in the heart of “The Theatre District.”

Photo by Kelsey Martinez

Not everyone involved is a Buffalonian and that includes big hitters brought in for the occasion.  Aja M Jackson of Boston, Massachusetts creates lighting effects that are really something to behold.  Right away, just sitting in the theater waiting for the show to start, I was impressed by how her lighting design encompassed the very large 710 thrust stage which can easily make sets seem “less than.”  Here the fairly simple set (lots of rocks, a few palm trees) was illuminated so beautifully that it seemed “right” and not minimal.  And another “out of towner” was Canadian Patrick Parsons, founder of Ballet Creole, who was brought in as the Caribbean Cultural Coach. 

While the off-stage 5-person musical combo was excellent, I found the arrangement that they were given to be overly dependent on keyboards.  That sound of the electronic piano got a little old during the “quiet” scenes.  But, when the dancing starts, and it’s all throughout the show, then the combo comes alive, with some damn fine drumming by Preston Brown with auxiliary percussion by Joey Gonzalez.

Photo by Kelsey Martinez

I want to give a shout-out to Melinda Capeles in her ensemble role.  As I pointed out in my review of CABARET, she tends to stand out, but in a good way.  Or, as one of her fellow Artie-Award winning actresses posted: “I can never take my eyes off Melinda Capeles.”  And all that’s true, but I think the highest praise that I can give to ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is that Capeles is not the only fine dancer on stage. 

Fine dancers and one amazing dancer, the lead actress, Zhana Reed, as Ti Moune.  On opening night there was a large and vocal group of her supporters from her alma mater, Buff State, (where Naila Ansari teaches) and some may remember Reed’s outstanding performance as “Celie” in the 2018 performance of THE COLOR PURPLE at the college (which also starred Gabby McKinley as Shug Avery… what a cast that was).  Reed swoops, she dives, she leaps. 

Photo by Kelsey Martinez

And she’s surrounded by an enthusiastic cast including Brandin Smalls, Latosha Jennings, Marcus J. Paige, Anita Frasier, Derrick Penny, Cecilia Monica-Lyn Barron, Enoch Cray, Alex Garcia, Anika Pace, and this is so charming, twin sisters Shylah and Samyah Douglas as “Little Ti Moune” and “Little Girl.”

Shea’s uses an all-digital program which you can look at by clicking here.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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