Westfield High School
"Our story begins on the night of a flood…" Lightning flashes across a crimson sky, thunder crashes louder than a beating drum, and "One Small Girl" washes up on an island of two different worlds. Clarksburg High School invites you to dip your toes in the waters of Once on This Island.
Opening on Broadway in 1990 and running for various revivals, Once on This Island was written by Lynn Ahrens and scored by Stephen Flaherty as a Caribbean-infused commentary on colorism and classism. The musical tells the story-within-a-story of two supportive parents, four guiding gods, and countless lively villagers who take Ti Moune under their wings. While praying for purpose, Ti Moune discovers a dying boy from the other side of the island, and despite the disapproval of her parents and fellow peasants, she sacrifices herself for the love-at-first-sight of her life.
It truly takes a village to raise Ti Moune, but by the grace of their gods, the entire ensemble was up for the undertaking. Playing peasants and privileged alike, every actor on the island was committed to creating distinct characters, but their duties did not stop at that… From a swirling sea of scarves to a downpour of dancing raindrops, the ensemble also personified nature with nuance, bringing a whimsical wonder to the island.
While "Waiting for Life" to begin, Jayla Hamelin conveyed Ti Moune's childlike charm, and she blew the ballroom away with her physical flamboyance during the big dance break. Similarly, Elijah Beeler brought a vibrant vibrato and terrific tenor technique to "Some Girls", and speaking of unexpected dancers, he also showcased his spunky side during "Why We Tell the Story". From their first embrace to their gate-barred goodbye, the bond between Ti Moune and Daniel proved unbreakable… even when their love was nothing more than a long-lost memory.
Commanding the Caribbean is a lot of work, but luckily, the gods' power was not solely confined to controlling the plot--they were also key contributors to the energy of the entire production. Amber Ruiz embodied Erzulie with effortless elegance and stunning soprano vocals in "The Human Heart"; Anusha Dasgupta portrayed Papa Ge with deathly dominance in the reprise of "Forever Yours"; Asanti Lubika embraced Asaka with spunky spirit and remarkable riffs in "Mama Will Provide"; and Brandon Miller characterized Agwe with charisma and a captivating vocal range in "Rain".
Bringing the lush island landscape to life, dazzling technical touches accentuated a tropical atmosphere. Crafted and compiled by Molly Ridgeway, Leila Rickoff, Aastha Shrestha, and Sofia Burkhardt, the gods' grandiose gowns and fierce outfits made their characters even more memorable and magical. Similarly, Tobi Oyeneyin, Vick Peterson, and Felix Richardson drowned the stage in a sea of colors, employing lots of innovative lighting techniques like backlighting in "The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes" and spotlighting in "Forever Yours". Working incredibly hard to incorporate African and Caribbean culture into the choreography, student choreographer Naomi Conteh created cohesive step sequences that empowered the cast to use dance as an additional storytelling technique.
Enchanting and emotive, Clarksburg High School's performance of Once on This Island exemplified the everlasting power of loving in the face of loss, celebrating the common threads of humankind, and reminding everyone "Why We Tell the Story".
Herndon High School
The greatest question of every fairy tale has always been ‘how far would you go for love?' Clarksburg High School's exquisite production of Once on This Island offers an answer: to the gates of another world.
Once on This Island, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, opened on Broadway in 1990. Its lush score and moving story are based on the Little Mermaid, but set in the Antilles archipelago. Ultimately, it's a tale of love and faith triumphing over class and prejudice. A Broadway revival opened in 2017 to even greater acclaim, winning the Tony Award for Best Revival. It's something of a "fish-out-of-water" tale, as one girl leaves her home by the shore for a boy who resides in a world of grand hotels and lavish balls.
Clarksburg's production stood out for its lush beauty, with everything from paper-mache trees to a befeathered parrot puppet. Costumes shimmered, and creativity shone, as heartbreak took center stage in the story of high-society Daniel (Elijah Beeler) and the poor, tenacious Ti Moune (Jayla Hamelin).
Hamelin's resolute stature made it clear how determined she was to reach Daniel, with whom she displayed a more lighthearted, free side. Beeler, meanwhile, transitioned from easy in the comfort of his room, shirt unbuttoned, to tucked in and poised at the society ball. His movements became stiffer, his face less emotional, as he admitted to Ti Moune that he was engaged. His vibrant vocals in every song, however, showed his love was just underneath the surface.
Orchestrating this entire romance were the four gods: altruistic Asaka (Asanti Lubika), almighty Agwe (Brandon Miller), entrancing Erzulie (Amber Ruiz), and phantasmal Papa Ge (Anusha Dasgupta). For most of the show, they stood on platforms at the back of the stage, behind brilliant murals of themselves (painted by Divine Aniugo and Cindy Lai). As Hamelin and Beeler fell in love with all its complications, each god took a turn in the spotlight- literally. Ruiz was lit with a soft glow in the love song "Forever Yours," with delicate hand motions showing how she was weaving the couple's fate. Lubika meanwhile displayed rich vocals in "Mama Will Provide." Her lavish gifts for Hamelin's journey were portrayed cheerfully by the ensemble, with "coo coo"s and "ba um"s heard as Asaka furnished the island with birds and frogs. And Miller had a powerful voice and even more powerful, godlike movements in the song "Rain", covered in dim, flickering blue light.
Each god had a dazzling and richly detailed costume, handmade by Molly Ridgeway, Leila Rickoff, Aastha Shrestha, and Sofia Burkhardt. Ruiz, as goddess of love, featured a flowing coral-pink gown covered in butterflies, while Miller bore a sash designed to look like the ocean's sapphire waves. Lubika's dress bloomed with colorful flowers over tones of emerald and sea green. And Dasgupta's arms were covered in scarlet handprints, meant to symbolize how even the god of death has clawing demons.
Choreography, by Naomi Conteh, was another point worthy of praise. Conteh's work was dynamic and beautiful, particularly the solo performed by Sierra Flowers in "Rain." Her flowing scarves added to the majesty and wonder as Miller's voice commanded the tides.
Ultimately, love is the greatest gift of all, and Ti Moune's tale highlighted this painfully yet beautifully. Sometimes the point is not that you won the prince, but that you fought for him. And as Clarksburg's production showed us, that's why we keep on telling the story.