Newburgh Students Impress Over the Weekend with 'Once on This Island, Jr'

Congratulations to the cast, crew and production staff of Once on This Island, Jr. presented by Heritage Middle School. The 6th, 7th and 8th grade students-turned-stars shone under the bright lights of the stage over the weekend in their rendition of the Caribbean love story with a timeless twist. Under the direction of Allison Hightower—music teacher at Heritage and a strong voice in community theater herself— the cast of nearly 30 delighted audience members with vibrant calypso musical numbers, strong characters and flowy colorful costumes. In the story, four gods : Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Briana Bene-Espinal); Agw√©, god of Water (Na'Shawn Jackson) ; Erzulie, goddess of Love (Bridget Ruggerio); and Papa Ge, Demon of Death (Joey Alberts) wreak havoc and harmony on the tropical island of Antilles.

(Left to Right) Briana Bene-Espinal, Joey Alberts,Bridget Ruggerio, Na'Shawn Jackson

As the plot begins to unfold, Agwe unleashes a terrible storm upon the island causing a disastrous flood that wipes out many people and villages. The starlet of the show—Ti-Moune (tea-moon) played by Camille Capello*—makes her entrance here when she is saved from the flood waters by the gods who place her in a tree. Her name translates to “little orphan saved by the gods for something special”. She is found and rescued by the peasants Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian played by Jamilia Oglesby and Elijah Knight.

Jamilia Oglesby and Elijah Knight played adoptive parents in OOTI, Jr.

The cast is joyful in song for much of the play, but there are solemn moments. Ti-Moune's story plays out in a longing for finding purpose, a relatable theme for the adolescents (and much of the audience). The gods arrange a cruel twist-of-fate in response, sending a car crash to the girl who pulls her true love from the wreckage.  Nursing him back to health, she falls deelpy in love.  An ill-fated love story unfolds between the handsome and rich Daniel (played by Antonio Simoni) and the peasant Ti-Moune.

Camille Cappello sang her heart out as the lovable Ti-Moune

The shoeless cast frolicked on the island stage with smiles strewn across their faces, effectively transforming a rainy February night into a warm and magical island evening.  Songs like, "We Dance", "Pray", "The Human heart", and "Why we Tell the Story" filled the room with four-part harmonies that floated across the stage.  A climactic scene late into the play showcased Camille Cappello in a powerful interpretive dance and each of the four gods had a solo - a shining moment for each of them. Hightower cast with relevance, building the vocal ability of her cast over 3 months of rehearsal. Character persona's, each unique and equally important to the over-all protrayal were well developed and craftily played by students that seemed transformed by their roles.

Amanda Fassbender as Little To-Moune

The show ends when the gods visit the forlorn Ti-Moune—depressed at the foot of the locked kingdom gate—bearing witness on Daniel's wedding day to his arranged marriage to Andrea (played by Phoebe Rutaqio).  So as not to end in total despair (this is musical theater, after all!) the gods intervene, transforming the leading lady into a tree. Legend has it, the spirited tree springs up and cracks open the gates of the kingdom forever, effectively dismantling the separation of classes on the island for all time. “Ti-Moune’s spirit touched their hearts and they were free to love and this is ‘Why We Tell the Story'.”

voices of the 'storytellers' were invaluable to the overall performance

*Little Ti-Moune was played by Amanda Fassbender Special thanks to Kerry Butrick - media relations  specialist for NECSD - for the photographs. Once on the Island Jr. is presented through special arrangement with, and all authorized performance materials are supplied by,Music Theatre International, 421  West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019or visit www.MTIShows.com.