‘Sesame Street’ veteran directs Broadway show at Olney -- Gazette.Net


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Love is a very powerful emotion. It forges bonds between people and creates fierce loyalty and a need to protect. Love can make you do and say crazy things, but it also can be a calming influence.

For some, love is the strongest force on Earth.

‘Once on This Island’

When: April 9 to May 4 (contact theater for show times)

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

Tickets: $38.50-$63.50

For information: 301-924-3400; olneytheatre.org

After surviving a terrible storm as a child, Ti Moune prays to the gods of the island, wanting to know the purpose of her life. While the gods laugh at her, Erzulie, the goddess of love, insists that she be given love as her purpose.

So begins Ti Moune’s adventure in “Once on This Island,” a musical being staged at Olney Theatre Center.

“Ti Moune is a free spirit,” said Aisha Jackson, who plays the character in the show. “She’s loving and caring. She wants to live life to the fullest.”

Papa Ge, the demon of death, is furious that Ti Moune was given love and proceeds to make a bet with Erzulie to see which is stronger, love or death. Ti Moune then falls in love with Daniel, a man who’s been taken in after a bad car accident. When Papa Ge comes to take Daniel’s life, Ti Moune begs Papa Ge to spare him and offers her life in return. Papa Ge leaves, but vows to return one day.

“It’s a story of love that overcomes racism, that overcomes social class and poverty,” Jackson said. “It’s showing that love can conquer all of those things. It doesn’t matter what color you are and it doesn’t matter how much money you have, doesn’t matter where you come from, you can always love.

“Loving someone no matter how hurtful they are to you or no matter what they do to you, it speaks volumes and it can change people.”

The show is being directed by a popular guy who lives on “Sesame Street.” Although this does seem like a show Big Bird would enjoy, the reins fall to Alan Muraoka, who plays Alan, the owner of Hooper’s Store.

Muraoka joined the cast of “Sesame Street” in 1997. When he’s not filming scenes for the show, he’s usually involved in sort of musical theater, either on stage or directing. He received good reviews for his role in “Pacific Overtures” on Broadway. He’s also directed “Urinetown: The Musical” in Texas and “Falsettoland” for the National Asian American Theater Company in New York.

Muraoka saw “Once on This Island” in 1989 on Broadway when he was performing in New York.

“What struck me about it when I saw it was really the simplicity of the storytelling,” Muraoka said. “This was back in ’89 when all the mega-musicals were coming in with chandeliers and helicopters. This was a simple story with 11 actors telling this beautiful, beautiful story with minimal props on one set and they told it through movement and just the words.”

After seeing the show an additional four or five times, Muraoka was hooked and knew he wanted to direct it at some point. When he was approached to direct the show at Olney, he jumped at the chance.

“It was something I knew I wanted to do and that I knew I had the respect [for] the materials to try to make it something worthy of what my heart feels is so special about it.”

The show is particularly special for Jackson. When she was a girl in the sixth grade, her very first performance was in “Once on This Island,” as Little Ti Moune. Now, years later, the actor has come full circle.

“I was Little Ti Moune and I always wanted to be Big Ti Moune,” Jackson laughed. “Being able to have this opportunity really is a blessing. I’m so grateful for it. This show has just taught me to enjoy life and to be grateful for the things that I have every day. We have bad things happen every day, but it’s nice to look at the positive side of things and Ti Moune always does that.”

Muraoka knows that, at its heart, “Once on This Island” is a show about community and a story about the passing down of oral traditions of our past generations. It’s his hope that audiences pick up on that and take it back with them to their families and communities.

“With so much technology in our world now, with so many iPads and iPhones and texting, we’re losing a sense of community and communication and social interaction with each other,” Muraoka said. “These things are slowly getting lost. For me, the idea of ‘Once on This Island,’ and the idea of this oral tradition being passed down … it’s something I hope people walk away with.”

wfranklin@gazette.net