Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Based on the novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy,
Directed by Michael Arden
First produced in 1990, this darkly hopeful fairy tale sports an impressive list of cultural ingredients. The story incorporates a Shakespearean duo star-crossed lovers, a cast of powerful figures from Caribbean mythology, a dash Zola-esque social realism, and a nobly-doomed heroine worthy of Hans Christian Anderson. Book and lyric writer Lynn Ahrens, working from a novel by Rosa Guy, skillfully blends these disparate flavors into a satisfying narrative stew. The musical menu is, unfortunately, not so zesty, but it’s solid enough to hold the story together and give the singers something to work with.
The eponymous island, located somewhere in the Antilles archipelago is populated by two distinct. The wealthy side of the island is inhabited by the light-skinned descendants of French colonialists, who live lives of luxury and sport. Down in the village, the indigenous people cling to their own traditions while earning a livelihood for the earth and sea. Though they have little in the way of material goods, the peasants possess a rich tradition of storytelling. On a stormy evening, to comfort a little girl frightened by thunder the townspeople (Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Tyler Hardwick, Cassondra James, Grasan Kingsberry, Loren Lott T. Oliver Reid, and Aurelia Williams) gather together to spin the yarn of a young woman who dares to challenge the island’s never-the-twain-shall-meet attitude towards class.
The tale begins when water god Agwé (Quentin Earl Darrington), unleashes a bitter squall which causes the rivers to overflow. Many towns are destroyed in the deluge, but the life of little a little girl (Emerson Davis) is spared. Safely ensconced in a tree, the child is discovered by villagers Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin). Figuring the gods must have their reasons, the couple adopts the girl and school her in the ways of island life. As she grows to womanhood, though, the inquisitive Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore) desires to know more about the outside world. Fascinated by the rich young people who whizz through town in sports cars, Ti Moune beseeches the gods to let her be more like the grande hommes. Hearing her prayer, the gods scoff at Ti Moune’s lofty ambitions. But love goddess Erzulie (Lea Salonga), sees no harm in letting the girl have the happiness she desires. Not to be outdone, death deity Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge), places a bet with Erzulie: we’ll see weather love or death is the stronger force. The wager gets interesting when Agwe arranges for Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell), the son of prosperous hotelier, to crash his car while driving through Ti Moune’s neighborhood. Against her parents’ wishes, Ti Moune insists on nursing the unconscious Daniel back to health. She falls in love with the lad, and when Papa Ge comes to claim his life, Ti Moune offers hers instead. When Daniel is returned safely to his family’s estate, Euralie and Julian breathe easier. Ti Moune will forget him in time. As usual, though, the young woman has her own ideas, and insists on taking a journey to the rich side of the island. Here, Ti Moune believes, she and Daniel will live happily ever after. Earth goddess Asaka (Alex Newell) sees to it that Ti Moune reaches her destination safely, but that’s only half the battle. In her zeal, the young woman has reckoned without the rivalry of Daniel’s promised bride (Alysha Deslorieux), the interference of his stern father (David Jennings), and a secret curse that has haunted the Beauxhomme family for generations. And, of course, there’s that rash promise she made to Papa Ge, who isn’t likely to let a debt go uncollected.
Wisely, Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty forgo the typical musical-comedy happy ending in favor of a more sublime finale. Director Michael Arden and choreographer Camille A. Brown use Circle in The Square’s round space creatively, creating a functioning village – replete with live animals – in which to ground the story-within-a-story. The shifting moods and changing locales of the plot are handled with confidence and imagination by set designer Dane Laffrey and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Costume designer by Clint Ramos uses a palette of rich, warm colors that evoke the exotic flora of the Caribbean. The actors radiate warmth and emotional honesty, and go at the songs with sensitivity and impressive vocal prowess. Innovative casting choices, such as the Dionysian Dandridge in the usually male role of Papa Ge, help to give the material a fresh interpretation.
There is only one respect in which ONCE ON THIS ISLAND falls short of the greatness it might have achieved. The score, though perfectly pleasant, isn’t particularly memorable. There are few catchy melodies and, with the exception of an exhilarating dance sequence, little exploration of Afro-Caribbean musical idioms. Most of the score sounds a bit like Jimmy Buffet: agreeable pop chord sequences with a light seasoning of calypso. It works, but with a more powerful musical spine, ISLAND could go from a great evening of theater to a classic.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND continues in an open run at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W 50th St, New York, NY 10019 Tickets: http://www.onceonthisisland.com/tickets/