Kenita R. Miller, Curtis Holbrook, Ryan Steele and More Make Wishes Come True in Once On This Island Benefit

By Michael Gioia
January 21, 2014

Once On This Island, the Caribbean-flavored musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty in which a young peasant girl keeps faith in higher powers to grant her wishes, was presented Jan. 21 to benefit Make-A-Wish Foundation. Playbill.com was there. 



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Nikki M. James, the Tony Award-winning Book of Mormon actress who will star in Broadway's upcoming revival of Les Misérables, took the stage at the Lucille Lortel Theater around 7:30 PM to introduce the Friends in Theater Company production of Ahrens and Flaherty's Once On This Island, which was staged to benefit Make-A-Wish Foundation of Metro New York and Western New York and grant 14-year-old Zachary's wish to see a Broadway show and attend "The Colbert Report."

Before James, whose nephew's wish was previously granted by Make-A-Wish, handed over the stage to Kenita R. Miller and company, she described Friends in Theater Company's mission — to bring together Broadway stars for a night of inspiration and hope — and admitted that its founder, Philip Accorso, was pacing backstage with tears in his eyes from excitement.

"It was probably the most magical night of my entire life," Accorso told Playbill.com following the performance. "I've just never been so proud of anything that I've ever worked on… We had Stephen Flaherty here, we had original cast member Gerry McIntyre, we had the Wish family, and we had a Wish survivor. I'm still on Cloud Nine."

Cloud Nine was where most of the cast and creative team sat following the one-night-only, minimalist production of Once On This Island, especially its star, Miller, who had a longstanding relationship with the musical, Friends in Theater Company and Accorso.

"I have history with this company since I was in high school — like a sophomore — and also with this show," explained Miller, who met Accorso on a beach. When he heard her sing, he asked her to audition for a local production of Once On This Island, and she landed the role of Ti Moune.

"Lynn and Stephen have been angels in my life, and this [is] one of the first musicals — as far as performing — that I was introduced to in high school. I actually met Phil on a beach singing, and [he said], 'We're doing Once On This Island.' It's all kind of surreal! And, now to be how many years later… Actually, this was my costume!" she said of the dress she wore to the benefit's downtown after party.

Miller, who captured the role of Ti Moune with innocence and grace, wore her heart on her sleeve from the beginning of the show. She received applause throughout the entirety of her first number, "Waiting For Life," and finished the song with tears in her eyes.

"Not to get corny or anything, but there's nothing like something that makes you connected to another human being, and I think that's kind of just inbred in this show, even if you're in the audience," she said. "I will always jump at the opportunity to connect with human beings, and that kind of spirit is really special."

Of the Make-A-Wish recipient, Zachary — who met the cast before curtain — she added, "That spirit, right there… [Meeting him] was really, really special. I had to kind of rein in [my emotion] because it will make your heart explode. It makes it really come to life — this person you've been thinking about and raising money for… To actually have them there and [see] everything you put into [the show] right there in your face, it [is] the spice of life — that essence of life."

Curtis Holbrook, who will be seen in the upcoming Broadway musical If/Then, directed and choreographed the production (with tight music direction by Jonathan Rose), which — due to limited budget and rehearsal time — was stripped down to its core, using only three translucent flats, various shadow play and an ensemble of storytellers to imagine the island world.

"It was an incredible opportunity for an event like this to really just take Once On This Island and keep it super simple and just tell the story," said Holbrook. "It's a perfect show for this kind of event, so it was really fun to strip it down and just be bare-bones about it and let the songs be what they are and do what they do. Truly, the audience can connect with the show more so that way."

Ryan Steele, known for his dancing in Broadway's Newsies and Matilda, assisted Holbrook on the production as assistant director/choreographer.

"It was my first time being part of the creative team," he said, "and I was so proud of the show and so grateful to be working with such an amazing company. It was a pride that I haven't felt yet in my career, and I hope to feel it more. Doing something that you love feels a lot better when you're doing it for a good cause, and this project absolutely proved that. The energy in the room at every single rehearsal was amazing because everybody was so passionate — not only about the work and the craft, but the reason we were doing it."

The hard work of the cast was met with positive audience feedback.

"It was nice that the audience was responding to everything," said Tamika Lawrence, who played Erzulie, the goddess of Love, and stole the show with her effortless and heartfelt performance of "The Human Heart." "A lot of times doing shows, the audience can be timid or they're listening… It was really nice to just have them respond to everything… They were giving that energy, and we could get it back, and I could get it back. It just gives you more room to play — more room to let your soul out."

Cast members left their souls on stage, and Flaherty, who sat in the center of the orchestra, seemed pleased.

"He just told me that it was incredible," said Accorso, who hopes to see the musical wash up on the New York City shores. "I think it's time for a revival."

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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Andre Ward and Kenita Miller
Photo by Monica Simoes