Lively Parade of Caribbean Style Songs and Dances Carries Once on This Island Across The Finish Line
Also see Bob's review of Henry IV, Part One
The second collaboration of Lynn Ahrens (Book and Lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (Music), whose subsequent musicals have included Ragtime and Seussical, Once on This Island is based on the novel "My Love, My Love" by Rosa Guy (which in turn is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid). It is set on an island in the French Antilles on a stormy night. To deflect their fear of the storm and assuage their fearsome gods, a group of islanders gather under a shelter, and play out an island legend almost entirely in song and dance.
It is the story of a small child, a girl, who is spared by the gods on a stormy night when her parents drown and her village is washed away. Sheltered in a tree by Asaka, Mother of the Earth, she is discovered by a poor elderly couple who cannot resist taking her in and raising her. They call her Ti Moune which means "little orphan."
Full of spirit and wanting to find broader horizons than those offered by her poor village, a nubile Ti Moune is captivated by the good looks of the wealthy Daniel. She prays that she will be able to win his heart. Ti Moune is set on a journey by the gods which will "test the strength of love against the power of death." On a rain-swept night, the wealthy Daniel crashes his car close by to Ti Moune. Ti Moune rescues the severely injured Daniel and nurses him, saving his life. After his parents retrieve and return Daniel to their fancy, gated hotel on the other side of the island, Ti Moune determines that she will find him there.
The gods and villagers tell of having fought the French and the hated Napoleon, and driven them off their island. Armand, who had grown wealthy on the island, left behind a son named Beauxhomme, whose mother was a beautiful black peasant girl. Armand curses his son, and all future generations of Beauxhommes: "your black blood will keep you forever on this island, while your hearts yearn for France!" The storytellers add: "They despise us for our blackness/ It reminds them where they're from/ The sad, sad tale/ Of the Beauxhommes. Daniel is a Beauxhomme. Her adoptive mother tells Ti Moune: "Marry you! You are mad! He will not marry you."
Ti Moune manages to reach Daniel at the hotel where she restores his strength. Daniel declares his love for her. However, Daniel has been betrothed since childhood to another and will honor the marriage arranged by his parents. The heartbroken Ti Moune has traded her life to save Daniel's life, and Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, takes her. However, there is a happy folkloric ending.
The story is adult and rather downbeat. The music, the mood and the performances are almost entirely upbeat. In death, Ti Moune and love triumph over death in an upbeat, celebratory sunlit new day finale. For me, this all makes Once on This Island something of an odd duck of a show. The story tellers are an incongruous amalgam of Greek chorus and story theater. The mood and style suggest suitability for children, whereas the philosophic, tragic and historic tale is more like Ahrens and Flaherty's weighty Dessa Rose than their Seussical, and will elude the understanding of all but the most precocious pre-teenagers.
The story theatre/ Greek chorus style as developed here leads to our not knowing much in the way of particulars about anyone. Does Ti Moune ever go to school or work? Ditto as to Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian. The other peasants are totally generic. Which god is which? They did introduce each one, but did you catch the introduction amid the hyped up sound and frantic pace? Did everyone catch all that business about the Beauxhomme?
In order to enable the small delicate Once on This Island to fill the Paper Mill, director Thomas Kail has wisely turned up the volume and instructed his cast to perform with full out, unsubtle force throughout. And damn, if it doesn't eventually work. There isn't subtlety or clarity as to every detail. However, in time, I found myself setting aside the sketchiness of the characterizations as well as the incongruities between style and substance, and just grooving on the good spirit and sheer energy of the performances, the rhythmic, infectious music, the intriguing lyrics with their clever rhyme schemes (when I could follow them amid the cacophony), and even resolution of the plotline (from the point that Ti Moune ventures to Daniel's hotel).
Syesha Mercado (best known for having been a season seven "American Idol" finalist) has excellent pipes and lends the proper emotional weight to each of her scenes. I would have preferred more modulation in her singing (must every ballad be a showcase power ballad?). However, it is highly doubtful that today's younger audiences will share my sensibility on this one. Adam Jacobs displays sensitivity as Daniel. The delightful and reliable Kenita R. Miller brings charm and feeling to her Mother Euralie. Courtney Harris is charming and solidly grounded as Little Ti Moune. Kevin R. Free (Tonton Julian), Darius de Haas, Alan Mingo, Jr., Saycon Sengbloh, Aurelia Williams (gods of various stripes), Courtney Reed (Andrea) and Jerold E. Solomon (Armand) all make strong contributions, particularly in their roles as villager-storytellers providing drive, enthusiasm, energy, and their dancing and singing talents to delight us.
The choreography by Bradley Rapier is not distinctive, but it is energetic, engaging, and likely just what is called for. The purposefully rag tag scenic design by Donyale Werle seems appropriate and gets the job done. However, during the early scenes, there is a black skirt that runs across the lower quarter of the stage and distractingly covers the bright background roughly from the shoulder level of the performers down to the bottom of the stage. When it was lifted into the flies, I wondered why it had been there in the first place. There are new orchestrations by Lynne Shankel replacing Michael Starobin's originals. It seems to me that there was an attempt to make the music sound less like theatre music and more authentically Calypso/Caribbean. That observation is based on a comparison of the original cast recording with what I heard at Paper Mill. Do not take it to the bank.
And the music that Stephen Flaherty (and lyricist Lynn Ahrens) have given us here is largely delightfully entertaining. Still, it is difficult to pick out tunes which stand out from the pack. I would venture that Ti Moune's first song, the bright, forward looking "Waiting for Life"; Daniel's quiet, delicate and melodious "Some Girls"; and the joyous, melodious finale, "Why We Tell The Story" are among my favorites.
In the spring of 1990, Playwrights' Horizons (then under the direction of Andre Bishop) produced this charming little 90 minute, one act Caribbean styled musical at its Theatre Row location where it received rave reviews and sold out for 24 performances. The following October, Island successfully transferred to Broadway's Booth Theatre where it had a successful 14 month, 469 performance run.
Once on This Island is the work of a young, fresh team of writers who were able to delight audiences with a small, contagious musical while they were still honing their craft of creating musical theatre. Do not expect the smooth sophistication of their later musicals, such as their masterpiece Ragtime or the smaller, perfectly polished gem The Glorious Ones. We can be grateful and delighted that Paper Mill has afforded musical theatre aficionados the opportunity to again enjoy the many delights of Flaherty and Ahrens' Once on This Island.
Once on This Island continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday Sunday 1:30 pm) through June 24, 2012, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Once on This Island book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty; directed by Thomas Kail