Minimalist ‘Island’ rich in talent

6:15 p.m., Thursday evening. It is exactly one hour and 45 minutes before opening night of the Tony-nominated play “Once on This Island” — Yale style. Director Elle Ramel ’11 walks into the Off-Broadway Theater and is immediately accosted.

“Elle, I can’t sing,” mimes a cast member silently. Elle stares at her impassively. “Okay, no, I was kidding.” The cast breaks out into laughter and immediately the noise level spikes.

"Once on This Island" is the fantastical musical based on the book "My Love, My Love" by Rosa Guy. The show, produced by the Yale Drama Coalition, is playing at the Off-Broadway Theater from November 11-13.

The atmosphere buzzes with suppressed energy as cast members run through last-minute alterations and changes. Rolls of cello tape are hurtling like missiles across the room. Rolls of duct tape hurtle like missiles across the room. Cast members are harmonizing to Top 40 songs. “Where’s the candy?” is yelled by at least five different people. Lights flash on and off.

By 8 p.m., the crew has arrived and the cast is backstage, its candy cravings satiated.

“Once on This Island” tells the compelling tale of love’s triumph over death and the ravages of nature, of “two different worlds never meant to meet” as Papage (McKay Nield ’12), the god of death, says during the performance. The story is a not-so-veiled comment on racial and class tensions set in a tropical paradise; a comment that the cast and crew of “Once on This Island” successfully portray, especially through the show’s dance numbers (choreographed by Ramel and Melissa Cail ’13 — a staff reporter for the News), which are infused with African and Caribbean styles.

The story is essentially “West Side Story” meets “The Little Mermaid.” The gods of death, love, earth and water have an argument over who is the most powerful and decide to play a game. As a result, a peasant girl named Timoune (Stephanie Brandon ’13) is sent on an adventure, falls in love and faces the consequences. Timoune rescues Daniel Beauxhomme (Sho Matsuzaki ’14), a young aristocrat, when his car crashes one night during a terrible storm, and falls in love. The rest of the play tells the story of Timoune’s attempts to have her happily-ever-after despite the formidable opposition from both her own and Daniel’s family.

Brandon is enchantingly uninhibited as Timoune. She seems to have thrown herself completely into the role, which, in turn, easily draws the audience into the story.

The vocals are strong across the board, but if there’s one stand out, it’s Taylor Vaugh-Lasley ’12 (a staff writer for the News) whose honey voice succesfully brings the character of Mama Euralie to life. Vaughn-Lasley lends a sense of believability to her character, especially in the song “Timoune.”

The innovative use of minimalistic props create a startlingly realistic effect on stage. Characters hold up strips of cardboard and green umbrellas to depict a tree, while two metallic wheels and flashlights taped to a steel rod make up a car.

Overall the catchy drumbeats, perfectly synchronized singing and graceful dancing make “Once on this Island” a must-see.

“Once on This Island” runs through Saturday evening at the Off-Broadway Theater.

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