Open air musicals are always a challenge to stage, but this dazzling revival of "Once on this Island," nestled into the trees of Regents Park feels right at home. 

As we wait for the show to start, I wonder how they will pull off some of the theatrics written in the script. The show opens and immediately the joyful music of Stephen Flaherty’s Calypso book washes over us. The first thing I noted was the music being beautifully balanced. The brilliant live musicians (led by Chris Poon) are visible throughout, a great touch. 

The audience is swept away to the French Antilles where children are learning the story of Ti Moune. A Haitian folk tale about love within the division of race and class. Ti Moune (Olivier nominated Gabrielle Brooks) is orphaned as a young black girl during a storm and is taken in by a peasant couple. Mama Euralie (Natasha Magigi) and Tonton Julian (Chris Jarman) play a vibrant pair and are standouts in this production. Their community lives in poverty and is held back from entering the gates of elite society. The two worlds collide when Ti Moune falls in love with a wealthy man from the other side called Daniel (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje) who she discovers in a crashed car. He is mortally injured and Ti Moune calls upon the gods, who rule the people. The gods use the pair to determine whether death or love is more mighty. The gods ultimately let Ti Moune make the call on whose life they take and she chooses to offer her soul in Daniel's place. After a betrayal, she must make the ultimate decision. 

The plot of the musical has always been slightly thin but has always been about authentic storytelling which this production has nailed. 

Director Ola Ince has given this story of love and grief a new lease of life. The creative vision on this 90-minute production is remarkable. There isn’t an interval in there and somehow there aren’t any stagnant moments and the parts are always moving. Ince has been ambitious with her artistry and it has absolutely paid off. The slick ensemble are at the heart of this production working tirelessly at every moment to build the world that Ti Moune is in. A giant farcical puppet appears as Daniel's ancestor. The dance and movement (by Kenrick 'H20' Sandy) are clever and joyously carry us from scene to scene. 

The audience sit in amazement at the elaborate set by Georgia Lowe complete with Fire and Water to the rainbow of lavish (some even light up) costumes by Melissa Simon-Hartman. There is no lack of theatrics in Ola Ince’s vision. 

Gabrielle Brooks stuns as Ti Moune, her performance is both endearing and heartbreaking. Her voice is rich in quality and her stamina is extraordinary. A leading lady, fearlessly in her element. 

This love story is underlined by a racial narrative which still feels very relevant today. The message the show sets is to own our communities' stories and tell them ourselves. The two young children sharing the role of Little Ti Moune made for touching moments throughout. Casting director Jacob Sparrow has got the cast so right which is really important on a show about ownership. The cast share bows and the programme lists them all together which further emphasizes the community at the heart of the production. 

It’s feel good, it’s fast, it’s vibrant and I predict a sell out run. Warning - you will definitely be humming the songs on your way home. It’s infectiously catchy.

It runs until 10 June.


Review: Nicole Botha             Photo: Marc Brenner