Review: Tony award-winning musical, Once On This Island, set in Mozambique is a joyous and invigorating vividly evoked production, presented by Wela Kapela Productions, South Africa

Once On This Island- Tony-award-winning musical- by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

When: July 8-16, 2022 at 7pm (Tuesday to Saturday) and 2pm matinees on Saturdays- July 9 and 16
Where: Baxter Flipside
Tickets: R180 and R140 for block bookings (10 or more), students and seniors
Direct booking link: – clicks through to Webtickets or book, in person, at Pick n Pay stores
Featuring: Cast of 14 and 6-piece live band
Production info:

I loved Once on This Island – which is on at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town until July 16, 2022. The production, a re-imaging of the Tony award musical is produced by Wêla Kapela Productions, from East London. The impressive production has a cast of 14 and a 6-piece live band. It is a full-on musical theatre production, with an amazing cast, landing in the Baxter Flipside. The stage is filled with beach sand, with stalls, stacked with fresh fruit, vegetables, fabrics, crafts. It is as if one has wandered into an island. I could imagine a beach bar, serving Piña Coladas and daiquiris.  In the Cape Town winter, with loadshedding [power outages] and a general sense of anxiety, I cannot relay, the sense of magic that I felt, entering into the Flipside space and stumbling onto this wondrous apparition of an island and a vibrant cast from the Eastern Cape, singing through the story, Once On This Island.

The coming-of-age musical with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty was adapted from My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl, the 1985 novel, by Rosa Guy, set in the Caribbean. The novel was a re-visioning of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. In Once on This Island, a young ‘peasant’ girl, Ti Moune, falls in love with an aristocratic guy and eventually makes a deal with the gods on the island to save his life. In the Little Mermaid, the mermaid turned into a piece of sea foam. Plot spoiler alert- in Once on This Island– Ti Moune turns into a tree. It is sad. Good people don’t always get what is due to them but ultimately the message is of endurance and celebration- even if it is not in this world. Nature transcends, us mortal beings. If all else fails, soak up the sunsets, sunrises and gaze at the trees- become a tree.

For Wêla Kapela Productions’ 2022 version, director and producer, Amanda Bothma, has conjured up the island in East Africa. I have not been to Mozambique but for some reason the set pinged as Mozambique. And, yes, in a quickie interview after the show, Bothma told me that Mozambique was the inspiration. “The musical takes place on an island and I thought it should take place on an East African Island and then I found this beautiful picture of Mozambique and that is where we set it…We love this story. We love being in Cape Town.” [Interview is on Facebook, TheCapeRobyn].

The original production of Once on This Island, was on from 1990 to 1991. The West End production opened in 1994 and won the 1995 Olivier Award for Best New Musical. A revival of the musical was staged on Broadway, in December, 2017 and received critical acclaim and raves from publications like the New York Times and The Huffington Post.  It nabbed the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a New Musical. I think it is extraordinary that an independent theatre company from East London, South Africa, has re-visioned this musical, in 2022 and re-imaged it vividly on an island in East Africa, with a terrific cast and band. The costumes are colourful. The choreography is lovely –as the characters dance on the sandy beach space on the stage.

Wêla Kapela Productions’ staging of Once on This Island – is a triumph- a fully put together Tony winning musical popping up in South Africa -breathtaking in its energy with the refrain of #whywetellthisstrory- threaded through the musical: Why we tell the story – why we make theatre – why we strive to do good – be decent humans- in the face of forces which scupper us at every point. We can sing and dance, celebrate, hope and immerse ourselves on an island of hopes and dreams. The entire cast is terrific – with a knockout performance by Akhona Zizipho Nkinti as Tia’s adoptive mother, Mama Euralie. Nkinti is also the chorus director. This is an award winning performance. 

Talking of awards, Wêla Kapela Productions, recently nabbed two Standard Bank Ovation Awards – for cabarets- presented at National Arts Festival Makhanda: Vincent (starring Daniel Anderson) and Eva Cassidy (Kerry Hiles- soon to be on Kalk Bay Theatre in Cape Town, July 19 and 20, 2022). The multi-talented Hiles and Anderson are in Once on This Island. Wêla Kapela was involved in staging Jackal & Wolf at NAF and that production was on the Curated Programme. The East London based company trekked to Cape Town with Once On This Island. NAF ended on July 3. The energy and drive of this company is admirable. Wêla Kapela Productions’ Once On This Island is energetic, joyous and invigorating; vividly evoking an island in Africa. Once On This Island is wonderful family theatre- uplifting and entertaining. Do not miss.

On the beach: Wêla Kapela Productions’ staging of The Tony Award winning musical, Once on This Island, at The Baxter Flipside, Cape Town, July 2022. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

❇ Featured image: Ti Moune performed by Bathandwa Diniso in Wêla Kapela Productions’ staging of The Tony Award winning musical, Once on This Island, at The Baxter Flipside, Cape Town, July 2022. Supplied.