BWW Review: Spectrum Gives Us Colorful Culture in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have a fairly fine reputation in the way of a songwriting team for current Broadway musicals. It's rare to find a team that provides consistently solid shows, but Flaherty and Ahrens manage to do just that with the familiar titles that include SUESSICAL, MY FAVORITE YEAR, the epic and magnificent RAGTIME and ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. The Spectrum Theatre Company offers us ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, the story loosely based on a combination of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid and Rosa Guy's Caribbean novel, "My Love, My Love." It's a musical filled with Caribbean stylings told using the oldest of old vehicles of storytelling: The Greek tragedy. However, its Calypso beat, upbeat music and cheerful sensibility keep it from dragging us too far into despair. It's a fairy tale in that sense, using the socioeconomic status of the island's people at the heart of its story.
Four gods, Asaka, Mother of the Earth, Agwé, God of Water, Erzulie, Goddess of Love, and Papa Ge, Demon of Death, are in charge of all the shenanigans here. Agwe (Patrick Gathron) unleashes a powerful hurricane on the island to begin the story of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. Little Ti Moune (Jaydn Blackmon) is spared by the gods in this hurricane, and found in a tree after terrible floods rampage the island. An elderly peasant couple, Mama Euralie (Robin Blackmon) and Ton Ton Julian (Robert Joseph) reluctantly adopt and raise Ti Moune.
Ti Moune lives on the impoverished side of the island, and as she grows into womanhood, begins to question her purpose, longing to be a part of the lighter skinned wealthy class on the other side of the island. Hearing her desire, the gods at first laugh, but Erzulie (Judy Arnold) gives the now young woman Ti Moune (Rebekkah Bryant) love, as it is the strongest of the elements. This naturally rubs Papa Ge (Robert King) the wrong way, so he places a bet that death is stronger than love. They set their plan in motion as Agwe whips up a storm so the handsome Daniel Beauhomme (Cameron McKnight) heir to the Beauxhomme legacy, can conveniently crash his car on Ti Moune's side of the island. Papa Ge tries to take Daniel's life, but Ti Moune offers hers instead. Papa Ge agrees but will return for her later. Ti Moune nurses Daniel back to health, and falls in love with him of course, but as soon as he can walk, Daniel Leaves to return to his home. Ti Moune is determined to stand by her man, and, with an assist from Asaka (Jacqui Cross) leaves her side of the island to find Daniel on his.
Once on the other side of the island, we learn of the legend of the Beauxhomme, from whom Daniel is descended. The Beauxhommes. are forever cursed to yearn for France, thanks to their French patriarch who colonized the island, but they can never leave. The darker people from the other side of the island are reminders of the curse, and because of this, they remain forever alienated from the lighter skinned wealthier class.
Meanwhile, Daniel hasn't been healing so very well, so when Ti Moune first convinces him she nursed him from near death on her side of the island, and could heal him fully, he reluctantly agrees to allow her to help him again. Ti Moune and Daniel grow closer together, but, as the song literally says, there's the "woman you love and the woman you marry," and Daniel won't be marrying Ti Moune.
Daniel gets better and introduces Ti Moune to Andrea Devereau, who invites Ti Moune to dance at a ball. Afterward, Daniel explains he and Andrea are to marry to a heart broken Ti Moune. Just when things couldn't get rougher for her, Papa Ge shows up to remind her she's promised him her life in exchange for Daniel's, but, he makes an offer of trading Daniel's for hers again. He gives Ti Moune a knife to kill Daniel, and in the pain of rejection, Ti Moune seeks revenge, but she can't kill Daniel, proving love is stronger than death. Unfortunately, though, Daniel catches Ti Moune with the knife, and throws her outside the gates of the Hotel Beauxhomme, where she waits in vain for him for many days. When he finally appears at the gate, it's with his bride Andrea so they may shower the peasants with coins in a wedding ritual. Defeated, Ti Moune is taken by Erzulie to Agwé, who allows Ti Moune to drown peacefully in the sea, and Ti Moune is reincarnated by Asaka into a tree. She is planted at the Beauxhomme gate, and her roots grow so deep that they break open the gates to bring people from each social status together.
It's not as complicated as it sounds, really. A girl falls in love with a boy who is betrothed to someone else and takes her own life to show that forgiveness and love more powerful even than death.
Spectrum's company is full of treasured Austin talent, and its mission is vitally important to the thriving Austin Theatre scene. There are many regionally professional performers who make up Spectrum Theatre Company, and several are found in the cast of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. They include Equity actors and singers working alongside what appears to be new talent to make up the cast. Given the mission and vision of the Spectrum Theatre Company, it seems appropriate, and director Dr. Billy Harden certainly has his hands full working to cultivate it all. Spectrum Theatre Company has a commitment to using theatre as a tool to support and keep the African American community culturally alive in Austin. Their mission includes cultivating and offering theatre to Austin's black community through classes for children, adults, and even at risk youth. It's a powerful mission that involves risk and courage when it's time to mount a production.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND as a story is solid, cohesive and universal. The production encompasses all age ranges and it's indeed a diverse cast in this way. There's leeway for anything from the most uncomplicated to elaborate set, choreography, lighting and costuming and this production lands somewhere in the middle of all that, with a straight forward approach to all the elements I've mentioned. Admittedly, the production is uneven. It's a risk that is part of cultivating a new company and new talent. The sound, a challenge for even the best of theatre companies, was questionable in spots during the performance I attended. There are cast members who may have run the risk of being over rehearsed by accommodating those who could have used more. But these sorts of things sometimes work themselves out throughout the run. And they are definitely the not uncommon growing pains of a young scrappy theatre company.
Nonetheless, they're getting the work out there, showcasing the talents of Judy Arnold as Erzulie, Goddess of Love, and Jacqui Cross as Asaka Goddess of Earth, both of whom handily played their parts as loving deities, protecting the young Ti Moune played by Rebekka Bryant. Rebekka gives Ti Moune a charming and star crossed passion opposite Cameron McKnight's Daniel. He's surly and privileged, and while I wished I'd seen more of a regretful and gentle Daniel, McKnight's commitment to his choices was steady. Robin Blackmon and Robert Joseph are gentle and wise as Ti Moune's adopted "parents." Patrick Gathron as Agwé and Robert King as Papa Ge provide solid performances alongside Cross and Arnold. Sonia Moore gives the perfect privileged, charismatic and lovely charm required, and stood out quite beautifully in the small role of Daniel's betrothed Andrea. The cast is supported by a chorus of islanders, most of whom performed with ease and enthusiasm.
Spectrum Theatre Company is a rich and useful new addition to the Austin theatre scene. It is good to see new talent growing alongside familiar faces to foster a diverse theatre experience. ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is the product of bringing us a part of the African American experience, just as the Spectrum founders intend, and it's worth cultivating.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahren Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Dr. Billy Harden
Spectrum Theatre Company
Boyd Vance Theatre at The Carver Museum
1165 Angelina St
Austin TX 78702
Tickets at http://www.spectrumatx.com/
Running Time 90 minutes with one fifteen minute intermission