A Review of Loyola Academy’s “Once On This Island”

In addition to the desire to hyper-link to a tropical island as winter makes its last gasps in Chicago, going to Loyola Academy’s Thespian Troupe 4729’s performance of Once On This Island, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, was a boost to my cultural immune system – bolstering it against network television’s blizzard of blather I would’ve been subjected to had I stayed home on Friday night.

I’ve seen the two performances this academic year by the Troupe and have not been disappointed. The musical kept pace with last fall’s Elephant’s Graveyard and even raised the level. Musicals are different by nature from non-musical productions and carry with them a different standard. My expectations were met and exceeded in the quality of the singing and in the energy and stage presence of the actors. It’s refreshing to see, hear, experience young talent onstage with the immediate goal of entertaining an audience who is present at the moment and for the moment, as opposed to impressing celeb judges and a home audience with an eye to a multi-million dollar recording contract.

The sets were simple and powerful yet again as was the case in Elephant’s – stark simplicity, allowing for freedom of movement and interpretation . Slats served to “support” the stage against a lightly lit backdrop creating an open, airy atmosphere. It was clear from the outset, as they watched from the balconies, that the gods Water, Earth, Love and Death, were major players. They each took their appropriate roles in the tale, marked by appropriate symbolic colors and executing their talents divinely. Costuming was vibrant and flashed across the stage with everyone’s movements in a seamless weave of visuals, music and dance.

The downside is in the fact that it was only one act! The play is what it is, the script is what it is, and the troupe kept to it in letter and spirit. A longer version (not the responsibility of Loyola Academy, btw) would’ve shown greater depth in the relationship between Ti Moun and Daniel, the tension between their two worlds which shared the same island, and the higher stakes of their love. This is something that a novel can do in more detail than a stage production. (The musical is an adaptation of My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy.)

I enjoy watching gods being portrayed as either “other than us” or “just like us”. When there’s a mixture of the two as the play is written, I’m usually a bit put off when the divine beings come off as more human than divine – I figure, hey, if they’re just like us, what the hell are we paying them for? My proclivities for superhuman gods aside, I think the regeneration of Love as shown at the end through the tree, another child and Daniel’s son brings everything to its hoped for conclusion. A very hope-filled play with a well-deserved cast, crew, orchestra et al. brings it all to life.

This is yet another sign that America’s got talent…and it ain’t on TV.