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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Heartfelt Once on this Island
at ArtsWest Playhouse

Once on This Island
Nick DeSantis as Papa Ge
The team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty has the talent, if not yet the recognition factor, of such Golden Age teams as Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe. One of their loveliest collaborations, Once On This Island (a Tony award nominee for Best Musical in 1991 and winner of a 1991 Olivier Award for Best Musical in the West End), is receiving what is only its second Puget Sound area production at ArtsWest in West Seattle. Having seen the majority of the musicals this company has staged, it is a pleasure to say this is their best to date.

Freely adapted from the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island is a twist on the traditional Little Mermaid tale, as it tells of Ti Moune, a poor,orphaned, peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel, an upper class boy whose life she saves after a car crash. There are four gods that the peasants believe rule their lives; Erzulie (the goddess of Love), Asaka (Mother of the Earth), Agwe (God of Water), and Papa Ge (The Demon of Death). These gods cause the lives of the young lovers to intersect, and Ti Moune leaves her adoptive parents and village on the fateful journey that tests the strength of her love.

Ahrens' book, fashioned as a legend being retold, is compact and efficient in communicating the essential story, but most of the story is told through her masterly crafted and poetic lyrics, and Flaherty's bracingly tuneful, yet never trite melodies. Director/Choreographer Christopher Zinovitch clearly loves this show, and that reads in his warm direction and simple yet satisfying choreography. Though usually cast with an all-African American company, Zinovitch and his cast succeed by keeping the focus on character and story, and thus the color-blind casting is not an issue.

That this is truly an ensemble show is most clearly illustrated by the sincere but only adequate lead performances by Jessica Low as Ti Moune and Jason Lewing as Daniel. Lowe simply doesn't have strong enough acting or vocal prowess to really soar in the role, or to transport the audience with Ti Moune's gorgeous ballad, "Forever Yours." And, while her dancing is certainly above par (she is also the show's Assistant Choreographer), her big dance moment late in act two could have been shortened to good effect purely because it stops the flow of the story to call attention to itself. Lewing has a light, pleasing voice on his featured solo, the lilting "Some Girls," but doesn't show the range of emotions that would indicate what compels Ti Moune to sacrifice her life for his.

Happily, the gods have their day and none more so than the cracklingly theatrical Nick DeSantis as Papa Ge. DeSantis is just beginning to get larger roles in Seattle, and by all means he deserves to have them, what with a Fosse flair in his dance moves, a rich, clear voice, and comedic zeal in both his lines and every gesture, which make him stand out while not upstaging his fellow actors. Dawn Brazel as Asaka is a brassy, sassy performer who takes a strong lead on the show's jubilant "Mama Wiil Provide." Ellaina Paulina Lewis is picture perfect lovely as Erzulie, and delivers and shows off an appealing, well-trained voice, if rather light in her lead vocal on "The Human Heart," and John Bartley makes a scampish and spirited Agwe. As TiMoune's adoptive Mother, Mama Euralie, Patricia Henderson has an abundant, joyful presence and exactly the kind of voice Ahrens and Flaherty must have envisioned when they wrote the songs "One Small Girl," "Ti Moune", and "A Part of Us" for this character. Makenzie Rose Greenblatt should be commended for finding a sympathetic edge to her role as Daniel's betrothed, Andrea, and in the small role of Armand, Jake Groshing (also the show's drummer) is strong and distinctive.

From the opening rouser "We Dance" to the comic "Some Say" to the "We Tell the Story" finale, the full ensemble sounds great (kudos to Musical director/conductor Deanna Schaeffer), and director/choreographer Zinovich keeps a cast with obviously mixed levels of movement skills looking comfortable and cohesive. Though I found Tim McNamara's scenic design distractingly childish looking, and Miko Premo's costumes colorful but sometimes out of place, Jenny Anderson earns high marks indeed for her detailed and eye-catching mask and puppet designs. Musical director Schaeffer (at the keyboards), drummer Groshing, and Bass player Lonnie Schaeffer plays the score very well, but ArtsWest really needs to invest in some good body mikes for its principals, as they program more musicals at their acoustically challenging space.

Once will not be enough for Once On This Island, which will be produced anew as Village Theatre's season opener in September, and the sounds of other Ahrens and Flaherty scores (Ragtime upcoming at CLO, Seussical in September at Seattle Children's) will afford local audiences wider exposure to this talented team.

Once On This Island runs through May 7 at ArtsWest Playhouse, 4711 California Avenue, in West Seattle. For more on the show and the company go online at www.artswest.org.


Photo: Matthew E. Durham



- David-Edward Hughes



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