Once On This Island
After Reprise's productions of Damn Yankees and Flora, the Red Menace, I approached Once On This Island with somewhat lowered expectations. Unsure of the direction in which Reprise is going, and looking at a program with a cast of 12 and a "band" of 7, I wondered whether this would be one of those neglected productions of the seasona small-scale piece to round out the season when all the attention (and money) is directed at a larger, perhaps even pre-Broadway, production that will come later.
How wonderful, then, to discover a beautiful production of a touching musical. Director Billy Porter has put together a show that is a prime example of doing more with less. Barefoot performers in loose white cotton clothes easily convey the heat of the islands without a massive set telling you where they are. And watch how Jesse Nager portrays a young man driving a car by dancing fiercely with two flashlights in his hands. The lights indisputably suggest the vehicle's headlights, but choreographer Bradley Rapier has Nager move and spin with the reckless abandon of a privileged youth behind the wheel. It's a perfect example of showing everything with nearly nothing at alland a pair of flashlights is about as high-tech as this production gets.
The story of Once On This Island is a tale we've all heard many times before. A peasant girl (of the sort of peasants that are always more joyous singing and dancing to celebrate what little they have than the rich folk who have so much more) falls in love with a wealthy young man. She is devoted to him beyond all reason, and would gladly sacrifice herself for him (another stereotype musical theatre could probably do without). We get the standard girl loses boy and then tries to get boy back storyline, leaving the ultimate resolution as the only plot point ever really in doubt.
But that isn't it at all. The story of Once On This Island is deceptively simple. There are issues of classism and racism at work here, as well as filial duty. And the characters aren't all drawn with broad brushes. When our plucky heroine appears at a ball thrown for the rich, and dances in her passionate peasant way, the wealthy woman who is her romantic rival doesn't mock her or laugh at her, as you might expect. Instead, she treats the girl with a sort of patronizing kindness that a victor can easily yield to the vanquishedand make herself believe she's a good person. These unexpected moments of complexity in the characters elevate the piece above a children's cartoon-type retelling of the same old story.
But the best bit is the frame around the story. The tale isn't being told to us. Instead, it is told to a young princess by her royal court, at the time of her coronation. The fact that the royal court plays all the parts in a class-blind, race-blind manner adds a terrific level to this story about classism and racism. And the fact that they tell this princess this story, at this time, says an awful lot about the importance of storytelling, and, in turn, theatre itself.
The cast is solid, led by a splendid Kristolyn Lloyd as Ti Moune, the peasant girl. Lloyd gives Ti Moune an infectious enthusiasm, and her strong voice with youthful overtones is a perfect complement. Also strong is Bryan Terrell Clark as the trickster God of death, Papa Ge, who is powerful, frightening and possessed of an evil laugh that could make other evil laughs run and hide. Ledisi does some fine work as Asaka, the mother earth Godalthough the production's sound mix was a bit off on "Mama Will Provide," where we expected her voice to soar over everyone else's, and instead it nearly got drowned out by the crowd.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty give the show many great songs with Caribbean rhythms, and they're well delivered by the band. There are a few ballads and some character-driven songs as well, but the show is at its best when it keeps to its island roots, rather than trying to deliver standard musical theatre fare. Indeed, there's something not quite right with the pacingTi Moune's father's journey to the wealthy side of the island seems to encompass several songs and yet, when Ti Moune herself makes the same arduous trip, it is covered in half the time. Late in the show, the pace begins to drag as we are shown that Ti Moune's love will reject her long before he actually doesso we want the show to get on with that already so we can see what will happen next.
Ultimately, though, these are minor quibbles. The show has an unexpectedly powerful emotional payoff at the end, which makes all this seem irrelevant. Small-scale though the production may be, Reprise nails this one.
Once On This Island plays at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA through September 14; for information and tickets, see www.reprise.org.
Reprise Theatre CompanyJason Alexander, Artistic Director; Susan Dietz, Producing Director; Danny Feldman, Managing Directorpresents Once On This Island. Book by Lynn Ahrens; Music by Stephen Flaherty. Scenic Design John H. Binkley; Costume Design Anita Yavich; Lighting Design Driscoll Otto; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Associate Music Director Matthew Smedal; Music Coordinator Joe Soldo; Technical Director Chris Batstone; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Casting Director Amy Lieberman, C.S.A.; Press Representative Davidson & Choy Publicity; Marketing Allied Live; Director of Development Christine Bernardi; Production Coordinator Rob Rudolph; Audience Development Consultant Charles Reese. Music Direction by Darryl Archibald; Choreographed by Bradley Rapier; Directed by Billy Porter.