Kelly Critic Review: 'Once on This Island,' Pittsburgh Obama

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The auditorium at Pittsburgh Obama is fairly simple. The walls are a simple, uniform color. The seats are uncushioned; the decor is not elaborate; the stage is not gilded. Obama's musicians are not concealed in a pit; they simply sit on chairs in front of the stage. Visitors, when entering the building, are greeted not by a ticket booth, but by a simple table manned by a few volunteers.

As for Obama's production of "Once on This Island"? In keeping with the surroundings: simply brilliant.

From the moment I entered the school, anticipation was in the air -- as was the music of steel drums, provided by a cluster of musicians outside the auditorium. As an usher in African garb guided me to my seat, my level of anticipation rose. All signs indicated I was in for something special.

I wasn't disappointed. Obama took on the challenging musical with apparent ease, filling the stage to the brim, capturing the audience's imagination, and breezing through accents when talking and singing alike. From the ensemble to the many soloing leads, vocals were spot on and enthusiasm was abundant, with particularly impressive displays from Keyanna Taylor-Thomas and Shae Wofford. Even from a distance, it was clear that Obama's actors weren't only performing--they were enjoying every second of it.

While Obama worked wonders with all the songs in "Once Upon This Island," some of the large, chaotic numbers in the first act were particularly breathtaking. Where some songs can inspire appreciation, these did more -- gluing my eyes to the stage and pinning me to my seat with sheer awe as the entire cast exploded with movement, simultaneously creating a powerful and tumultuous sound that nearly overwhelmed me. So rich and intense was the ensemble's combined voice that its reverberations rose through my feet and chair, seeming almost to echo through the rest of my body.

The atmosphere in the audience was similarly charged, with students regularly standing up to cheer on their peers during scene breaks, song breaks, and--when no break was approaching--right in the middle of lyrics and dialogue. While I may have missed a few lines here and there as a result, it was worth it to see just how supportive a school could be of its actors. The students' unified pride was nothing short of remarkable.

In keeping with its island setting, the show used only one set throughout, the centerpiece of which was a large, elaborately constructed hill, illuminated by the multicolored shimmering of embedded lights. While this set never changed, it also never grew dull, thanks to Obama's talented dancers -- led by student choreographer Connor Doubt -- who continually streamed through in the guise of frogs, trees, clouds, rain and even cars. Far from serving as a mere backdrop, however, the dance helped define the musical as surely as the singing that accompanied it.

Pittsburgh Obama's performance of "Once on This Island" was unlike any musical I have ever seen. Where most schools sing, Obama roared; where most schools walk, Obama whirled; and where most musicals are a show, "Once on This Island" was an experience. Despite my best efforts, it was a performance that, as this review sadly shows, defied description. Those who had an opportunity to see it should consider themselves lucky.

"Once on This Island" ran April 25-May 11.


The Kelly Critics is a joint program of the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh CLO's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musicals, in which students at Kelly schools review musicals at other Kelly schools. Reviews are edited by senior theater critic Christopher Rawson.


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