Bouncy Island breezes blow at TheatreWorks

Island 3
Ti Moune (Salisha Thomas) is lifted by the cast of Once This Island, a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Last Saturday I reviewed the TheatreWorks production of Once on This Island, the charming musical fairy tale by the Ragtime/Rocky team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. My review ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, and you can read it here.

Director Robert Kelley’s production captures much of the show’s charm and energy, and the cast is delightful. But I’ve been thinking about what it is – the production? the musical itself? – that left me feeling rather emotionally shut out of the story at the end.

First, here’s what I liked:

Kelley’s production bursts with tropical color in Joe Ragey’s painterly sets and Cathleen Edwards’ bright costumes, but what really energizes the show, from beginning to end, is the glorious choreography by Gerry McIntyre, a member of the original 1990 Broadway cast. There’s meaning in every movement, from the broad, bold swirl of an up-tempo number like “Mama Will Provide” to the more somber, folkloric feel of “A Part of Us.” McIntyre works wonders with the 11-member cast, making a small village feel much larger.

I think the answer to my emotional distance can be found in the general tone of the production, which is so bright and cheery and brisk. That combined with the graphic illustration-type set design makes the show feel less human and more like animation. Sure, it’s a fairy tale, but a grown-up one involving issues of race and death and resurrection. The difficulty comes in balancing the lightness of the fairy tale style with the darkness in the story itself. That’s where my disconnect happened.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Robert Kelley and actor Adreinne Muller about Once on This Island for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

TheatreWorks’ Once on This Island continues through March 30 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

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