Tales of doomed love can be charted back to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but contemporary interpreters of fairy tales are more apt to provide a polished happy ending. (The Grimm brothers could scarcely have imagined how Disney would drain the blood from their sobering tales.) When Once on This Island surfaced on Broadway in 1990, it snagged eight Tony Award nominations, including two for its industrious creators, Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), who seemed to have learned the secret of smart storytelling: that a more realistic and truthful interpretation of a fairy tale need not be bland and dour. Instead, they infused their tale with color and light in what New York Times theater critic Frank Rich termed "a joyous marriage of the slick and the folkloric."
With their exuberant rendition of this musical, the Gallery Players have staged yet another admirable revival. The energetic performances fairly explode from the stage, and director and choreographer Steven Smeltzer's interpretation is a dazzling celebration of the art and power of storytelling.
Based on Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love (a Caribbean reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid), Once on This Island tells the story of Ti Moune, a black peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel, the light-skinned son of a wealthy French planter. Like everyone else on the island, Ti Moune and Daniel are divided by class and race. "We dance at parties," the esteemed class sings, while the peasants counter, "We are dancing just to stay alive."
For the peasants, survival is paramount, and dreaming beyond present conditions is a luxury not easily afforded. But Ti Moune, whose mysterious origins led her to be plucked from a tree by her adoptive parents, wants more than a life spent working for others. "Mama's contented, and Tonton accepts what he gets," she scoffs while singing about her parents in her triumphant anthem, "Waiting for Life." She is determined that her own life will be much different.
With superstition prevalent throughout the island, four gods both help and hinder Ti Moune on her journey. As personified by Alicia Christian (Asaka, goddess of the earth), Anthony Wayne (Papa Ge, demon of death), Monica Quintanilla (Erzulie, goddess of love), and Michael C. Harris (Agwe, god of water), the spiritual beings are the island's lifeblood. Quintanilla, in particular, turns in an exceptional performance as Erzulie, and her sensitive performance of "The Human Heart" is one of the show's most heartfelt moments.
The entire cast is very strong and obviously thrilled to be part of this story. As Ti Moune (originally a breakout role for the precocious LaChanze, who currently stars in Broadway's The Color Purple), Lisa Nicole Wilkerson brings a lovely, wistful quality to her performance. (Recently featured as Nala in the national tour of The Lion King, she is a tremendously accomplished dancer as well.) Ashley Marie Arnold is endearingly energetic as Little Ti Moune, and as the story-within-a-story continually circles back to her eager questions, she is a hopeful, poignant, and ideal recipient of its message. With her youth and vibrancy, she is, as the company explains in the final song, "Why We Tell the Story."
Rashad Webb gives a sensitive (and silky-voiced) performance as Daniel, and Dann Black (who very nearly stole the show as Horse in the Gallery Players's production of The Full Monty last year) offers another delightful turn as the doting Tonton Julian. Debra Thais Evans (as Ti Moune's cautious Mama) and Katherin Emily Mills (as Daniel's intended, Andrea) also deliver fine performances.
With the show's impeccable design, the Gallery Players prove again how so much can be achieved with so little. Joseph Trainor (set designer), Amy Elizabeth Bravo (costumes), Niklas J.E. Anderson (lighting), and Jill Michael (puppet artist) are all to be commended, as the island comes alive with dynamic and creative colors, shapes, creatures, and dimensions.
Smeltzer excels in moving his actors across the stage—under his able direction, every person looks like an accomplished dancer. The percussive and dramatic "Pray," in particular, is an ambitious and arresting achievement. He is less confident, however, when the action slows down, and many of the quieter, dramatic moments become slightly static. In "Forever Yours," Ti Moune and Daniel's haunting duet, for example, the scene takes place so far upstage that its resonance very nearly evaporates. Ti Moune also remains seated for the following scene, which leaves Wilkerson unable to exhibit her character's escalating resolve as she makes a pivotal deal with Papa Ge. These are minor quibbles, however, in a production so brimming with well-executed movement.
Music director Steve Przybylski and his band play the Caribbean-influenced score with ease, and the percussion-based sections are particularly emotive and nuanced.
More attuned to the bleakness of reality than the romance of happy endings, Once on This Island nonetheless presents a world that honors love and integrity, even—and even more so—when faced with insurmountable limitations. The Gallery Players continue this celebration with pizazz.