Love, tradition clash in paradise

Lauren Taiclet

Once on this Island,” the Arts Alliance spring musical, is about to begin. The musicians are ready, the cast is in place, and the note-taking pen of the assistant director is poised.

Silence. And then the Louis Room goes dark – except for one tiny light glowing in the corner of the room. It’s tech day number one for the more than 30 cast and crew members involved in the show, and soon the source of light – a sewing machine tucked near the rear exit of the room – is humming away.

“The backdrop isn’t done yet,” says assistant director Erica Schwartz, a Speech sophomore, as she points toward the blue fabric hanging behind the wooden set – the island – that fills the front of the room. “I sewed those pieces together today.”

But Schwartz isn’t sewing now. While the stage manager and an another crew member man the machine, Schwartz sits in the center of the Louis Room, focused on the story playing out before her.

“(‘Once on this Island’) is a story within a story,” Schwartz says. “It begins in a storm, and the villagers are telling the story of TiMoune to a younger villager.”

TiMoune, a young island woman played by Weinberg freshman Melissa Menezes, believes the gods have saved her for a specific purpose. The reason is revealed in the form of Daniel, a Frenchman who wrecks his car in a storm, only to be discovered unconscious by TiMoune. Despite objections from her parents and fellow villagers because of Daniel’s race, TiMoune vows to care for him, telling the gods, “You saved my life for a reason, and now I know why.”

Through composer Stephen Flaherty’s Afro-Caribbean music, the cast brings to life the story of TiMoune’s love for Daniel, while illustrating the power of individual strength and love to transcend cultural limitations of human behavior.

“The show (emphasizes) diversity,” Schwartz says. “It is not classic musical theater.”

Since its first run on Broadway in 1990, “Once on this Island” has been interpreted in different ways by different theater groups. The music and script allow for the cultural gap between TiMoune and Daniel , played by Music freshman Brian Ogilvie, to be developed from either ethnicity or class differences depending on the resources of the particular group, says co-producer Geeta Kharkar, a Medill junior.

Kharkar says that Arts Alliance decided to perform “Once on this Island” with an emphasis on the ethnic and racial differences between the two main characters despite skepticism that NU theater would not attract a diverse enough group of performers.

“Lots of people said that not enough people on this campus would come out (for this show) because of the diversity it requires,” Kharkar says. After almost 150 people tried out for the show, Kharkar realized just how coveted are the roles that stray from the normal white, male leads of Broadway shows.

The show also deals with coming-of-age themes like journeying and self-discovery, issues that Kharkar believes college-age audiences connect with well and were particularly important to Menezes’ involvement in the production.

“I’m not a theater person,” Menezes says. “The only reason I wanted to be in the show was the show itself.”

Menezes, a first-generation American whose parents are from Sri Lanka and the Philippines, played the Goddess of Love in an Illinois High School Theatre Festival production of “Once on this Island.” She says the show moved her and she made her want to be a part of the NU performance.

“Musically, this is one of the best-written shows,” says Menezes, perched on the edge of the large stage overtaking the front of the Louis Room. The cast has just finished running the 90-minute show, and choreographers Grace Applefeld, a Speech junior, and Lindsay Gould, a Speech sophomore, detail concerns and corrections to a colorfully costumed cast. Menezes, focused like her fellow cast members, turns back to the group.

The energetic Afro-Caribbean rhythms of “Once on this Island” have ended for the moment, but it is tech week and the cast and crew know that the show isn’t over yet: Nearly completed backdrops, details and notes need perfection, and costumes need tweaking. It’s 10:30 p.m., and tech night number one is just beginning. nyou