Review: Pittsburgh CLO Cast Sparkles in Vibrant ‘Once on This Island’


When gods make bets, the real losers are never the gods. Such are the stories that pass from generation to generation, and such is the dilemma for Ti Moune, a passionate young woman at the heart of Once On This Island, the vibrant, enchanting fourth production in Pittsburgh CLO’s summer series of musical theater. 

Najah Hetsberger emerges as grownup Ti Moune, with help from Hailey Thomas, left, and Siggy Bijou, in Pittsburgh CLO’s Once on This Island.
(kgtunney photograph)

Opening Tuesday at the Benedum Center, it was a night of big, wondrous voices singing a tale of love, joy, prejudice, betrayal, and possibly redemption for inhabitants of a mythical island in the French Antilles.

Once On This Island was the first Broadway show, in 1990, by Dormont native and South Hills Catholic grad Stephen Flaherty. His music, with book and lyrics by longtime partner Lynn Ahrens, provides a Caribbean beat that began with the joyous “We Dance” and never let up.

Gerry McIntyre, a cast member of the Broadway original, directs and choreographs, making impressive use of the 11-actor ensemble.

Frenchie Davis as Earth Mother god Asaka. (kgtunny photography)

The story introduces four gods – Asaka (Earth Mother), Agwe (Water), Erzulie (Love) and Pape Ge (Death) – who make life-and-death decisions that affect the island’s mere mortals. The child Ti Moune (Eden S. Greene, a fifth-grader from Trinity Christian School in Forest Hills) is orphaned in a storm at the outset, but taken in by an older couple, Pittsburgh-based actors Melessie Clark as Mama Euralie and Brady D. Patsy as Tonton Julian.

Those on the island spend their days separated by race and class. Ti Moune (the effervescent Najah Hetsberger) and the “peasant” descendants of the original inhabitants are darker skinned. The upper classes live in the city, and count caucasian Frenchmen among their ancestors. The snooty Beauxhommes also happen to be cursed, but that’s another story.

Naja Hetsberger, as Ti Moune (center) is comforted by Brady D. Patsy
and Melessie Clark in Pittsburgh CLO’s Once on This Island. (Matt Polk)

They are of “two different worlds, never meant to meet.” Until they do, when Ti Moune spots the dashing aristocrat Daniel (Mason Reeves) tooling around in his expensive car. Of course, the gods can’t resist sticking their noses into such a scenario, and a bet is made among them to see which is stronger: love or death. Ti Moune is the pawn.

Daniel wrecks his car in a storm and is badly hurt. Discovered by Ti Moune on a remote road, she attends tirelessly to his recovery, at first, in her village, then at his family’s palatial hotel.

Hailey Thomas as Erzulie (Matt Polk)

Against the odds, they fall in love, with some help from compassionate god Erzulie (Hailey Thomas). 

Sure, Daniel’s kind of smarmy, but her love is blind. In the song “Some Girls,” there is a line “Some girls you marry, some you love.” She must have missed that one.
Does love conquer all? Well …

Almost everyone in the ensemble gets their chance to shine. Foremost is Hetsberger (Ain’t Too Proud on Broadway, Little Shop of Horrors off-Broadway) as the adult Ti Moune. When she sings “Waiting For Life,” we feel her anticipation as well as frustration:

“Oh, Gods
Oh, Gods
Hear my prayer
I’m here in the field
With my feet on the ground
And my fate in the air
Waiting for life to begin.”

Of course, be careful when you wish to the gods.

The gods themselves are expertly cast. Frenchie Davis (American Idol, Rent on Broadway) as Asaka gets to belt one of the most exuberant numbers, “Mama Will Provide;” she’s a revelation. Darius Harper as Papa Ge (CLO’s Lola in Kinky Boots last year) is a particularly terrifying Death, with Zephaniah Divine as Agwe and Thomas, a sweet-voiced rising senior at Texas State University, as Erzulie. It is Erzulie among the gods who has the softest spot for “The Human Heart,” and so she bestows a gift to equal Ti Moune’s enduring love.

Members of the cast fill multiple roles, front and center or as ensemble members, singing and dancing up a storm. Clark and Patsy shine vocally and emotionally in their roles, along with fellow Pittsburgher and dance captain LaTrea Rembert as Daniel’s father, Armand.

There is so much to admire about this CLO experience, starting even before curtain, with Bryce Cutler’s scenic and production design. Fringed by palm fronds, the stage is ringed with colorful outdoor lights and great use is made of projections that include crashing turquoise ocean waves upon a beach, a blood-red moon, the greenery of a jungle and a posh hotel exterior.

The Once on This Island story takes the company to the grand Hotel Beauxhomme,
with Eden S. Greene as young Ti Moune, center. (kgtunny photography)

Yoon Bae’s costumes and McIntyre’s choreo had the Benedum stage whirling with one hue to the next. Ti Moune’s dance at “The Ball” was a special treat. James Cunningham conducts a six-person band of musicians in delivering the Caribbean-infused score.

Once On This Island is about telling stories within stories, in hopes that lessons will be learned. How some of these tales end might be open to interpretation, but it’s certainly worth the journey, in an award-winning Flaherty-Ahrens musical, interpreted by Pittsburgh CLO.


Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Once On This Island is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, through July 30. Visit https://www.pittsburghclo.org/shows/once-on-this-island1 org or call 412-456-6666.

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