The national tour of “Once on This Island” features hometown theater hero Phillip Boykin.
That’s one reason this show at the Peace Center is a must-see. Here’s another: It’s a dynamite musical.
Boykin, with his resonant bass and commanding stage presence, puts in a committed, emotive performance as the kind fatherly figure Tonton Julian.
The Greenville-born actor was honored before a cheering crowd on Tuesday’s opening night by South Carolina Theatre Association officials who inducted Boykin into the S.C. Theatre Hall of Fame.
Boykin’s talent was nurtured by several Greenville arts institutions, including the Phillis Wheatley Repertory Theatre for Youth (founded by his adoptive father, the late Dwight W. Woods), the Greenville County Schools Fine Arts Center and the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
He went on to star in Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, and now he’s touring the country in “Once on This Island.”
Boykin’s return is a proud moment for Greenville.
“Once on This Island,” set in the French Antilles, is a sweeping tale of Ti Moune, a fearless peasant girl who falls in love with a boy from a rich family.
The island is divided by class, but Ti Moune is ready to risk everything for love.
The 90-minute narrative, performed without an intermission, is framed as a fairytale told to a small girl who has been frightened by thunder. Extravagantly directed by Michael Arden, the story is both realistic and fantastic, with four island gods — representing earth, water, love and death — on stage. Like the Greek gods, the island gods act very human, bickering and using the real humans as pawns in their power games.
Themes of racism, colonialism and economic inequality emerge in a musical that is really about the healing power of storytelling. The tear-jerking conclusion is heartbreaking and hopeful in equal measure.
Winner of the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, the show is driven by an irresistible, Caribbean-inflected score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
The cast is uniformly terrific. Courtnee Carter dazzles as the irrepressible Ti Moune. Tyler Hardwicke is her suave-voiced love interest Daniel.
Of the many fine actors, two deserve special mention: Kyle Ramar Freeman brings down the house with the showstopper “Mama Will Provide,” while Tamyra Gray is a riveting presence as Papa Ge, the god of death.
Two more performances remain of this electrifying “Once on This Island.” For tickets, call 864-467-3000 or visit www.peacecenter.org.
Paul Hyde, a longtime Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Greenville Journal. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.