“Once On This Island” at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of Once on This Island at Shea’s 710 Theatre. Photo by Kelsey Martinez.

Through a colorful and magical production, Shea’s Performing Arts Center produces its first in-house show of “Once on this Island” in which the talent of Buffalo, NY is highlighted and celebrated. I had the pleasure of attending the opening night at Shea’s 710 Theatre and could feel the excitement and support of the audience as soon as I entered the doors of the theatre. Actors could be seen walking around interacting with the audience and introducing themselves further building the buzz.

“Once on this Island” tells the story of Ti Moune (Zhanna Reed) as she is saved from a flood as a child and sent on a journey as a young woman to prove that love is stronger than death. The Gods are an integral part of this tale and are made up of Asaka, Goddess of the Earth (Latosha Jennings), Agwe, God of water (Marcus J. Paige), Erzulie, Goddess of love (Anita Frasier), and Papa Ge, God of death (Darrick Penny). Ti Moune falls in love with a wealthy grand homme named Daniel after she saves him from a car crash. She makes a deal with Pap Ge to keep him alive, trading her soul for his. After he is returned to the other side of the island, Ti Moune goes to him in hopes of marrying her true love. 

“Once on this Island” highlights two different worlds of the peasants and grand hommes. The peasants have darker skin and spend their days laboring on one side of the island while the lighter-skinned grand hommes entertain guests and have lavish parties on the other side of the island. The underlying themes of racism and class continue to make statements on society as a whole that audiences are able to connect with. Even in 2022, people are currently arguing over the casting of a black woman as Ariel in Disney’s upcoming “The Little Mermaid” live-action movie. Racism is unfortunately still very much alive and impacting our lives which is why the messages of this production are even more powerful. Having a full cast of brilliantly talented people of color is also a strong representation of the people of Buffalo.

Zhanna Reed does a beautiful job portraying the challenging role of Ti Moune. She fully personifies the strength and hope of the character and performs an incredible dance solo in “Ti Moune’s Dance”. She also brings the necessary sweetness and innocence to the role. Darrick Penny’s portrayal of Papa Ge reminded me of Dr. Facilier from “The Princess and the Frog” as he creates a perfect caricature of Death that also includes accessories similar to the Disney villain. Latosha Jennings as Asaka brings dynamite vocals to the crowd favorite “Mama Will Provide”. 

Another stand-out is Melinda Capeles as Andrea and ensemble. Capeles is an accomplished hard of hearing performer and teaching artist who brings the beauty of American Sign Language to her performance. The only other time I had seen sign language incorporated on stage was through performances of Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Capeles signs with a musical essence, almost creating choreography with her words. What an amazing representation. 

At the end of the show, the cast invited their artistic team on stage with them to perform a final verse of “Why We Tell the Story” and then took the time to speak on the team’s accomplishments and acknowledge their hard work in creating the production. You can really tell how much the cast appreciates and respects them and how close the relationship between them was. The entire audience was on their feet in support of the entire cast, crew, and production team in what felt like a celebration of Buffalo, young talent, theatre, and representation. “Once on this Island” is a must-see and will leave you feeling absolutely inspired. 

Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no Intermission

Sep 15- Oct 2, 2022

For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Fun Home’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of “Fun Home.” Photo by Jesse Sloier.

If you want to quickly check this review to see if you should see “Fun Home” presented by Musicalfare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre, the answer is not only should you…you MUST.

. . .[a] must-see production. . .

Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron adapted Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel to create “Fun Home.” The Broadway production took home five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Direction of a Musical (Sam Gold). As Alison’s father Bruce, Michael Cerveris won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. The show is a modern memory play, narrated by 43-year old Alison and detailing her life journey, coming to terms with her sexuality just as her father struggles with his own complicated feelings.

I criticized Musicalfare’s production of “Ragtime” earlier this year for lack of orchestra, but this production of “Fun Home” has no trace of that flaw in it. A delightful 7-piece orchestra under the command of Musical Director Theresa Quinn plays the Tesori score to perfection, and that’s not a word I use lightly. She and director Susan Drozd have assembled a team of Broadway caliber actors; Drozd’s work here might fly under the radar because the structure of the show works so well on its own, but she is to be commended. Every moment has driving forward momentum and makes excellent use of the unique space at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Musicalfare’s cast is so good it’s almost unbelievable. Carrying most of the show’s load as the “present day” Alison, WNY transplant Robyn Lee Horn just flat out gets it. She understands Bechdel’s sense of style, sometimes interjecting a one-liner to lighten a mood, sometimes presenting the tragic moments of the tragicomedy by stating them simply. And yet, in the musical number “Telephone Wire” towards the end of the show, she shows an unbelievable range of emotion. As she stands observing Chris J. Handley’s master class “Edges of the World,” we watch her experience the turbulent moment ourselves, as she stands in the aisle.

I mention Handley’s performance in “Edges of the World” because it’s the culmination of an expertly crafted performance. Thank goodness In addition to his role as Associate Artistic Director at Alleyway Theater, he’s the head of Theatre School of WNY and imparting his exquisite technique to young actors in the area. I’m a big Cerveris fan, but I found Handley’s performance as Bruce to be even more captivating. The audience feels every challenge Bruce faces, and his penchant for honest delivery makes for an incredible performance.

Medium Alison, the manifestation of Alison’s college self, is here played with ease by Renee Landrigan. Landrigan is one of Buffalo’s most versatile actors, and she, Horn, and Young Alison (Jane Hereth) have obviously spent some serious time working to unify their mannerisms. Landrigan embarks on self-discovery with a delightful optimism, aided by her college girlfriend Joan (played ably in this production by LauRen Alaimo).

Hereth’s performance as Young Alison has a strength well beyond her years. It’s an extremely difficult role, vocally and in terms of acting, but Hereth has no trouble. 710 is a HUGE space for a young actress to fill, but Hereth’s “Ring of Keys” fills it no problem. As her brothers, Joseph Bielecki and Jasper Brown make the best of their limited stage time. Brown is especially excellent, though it’s in his blood (his mother is also a Buffalo actress and successful singer-songwriter, and his grandfather Music Directed Ring of Fire in the same auditorium when it was Studio Arena).

Rounding out the cast is Steve Copps, who moves character to character with ease. He’s an essential function of the storytelling and doesn’t make too much or too little of each moment.

The must-see production only runs through May 19th, so get your tickets now.

Run time: 1 hr 40 with no intermission

“Fun Home” runs until May 19, 2019, is produced by MusicalFare Theatre and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.