An Enjoyable Time ON THIS ISLAND
It is easy to imagine a lush, extravagant production of Once on This Island, the 1990 musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (who would later collaborate on Ragtime and Seussical). Adapted from My Love, My Love, a novel by the Trinidadian-American author Rosa Guy, Island re-imagines “The Little Mermaid” on an unnamed island in the French Caribbean, “where rivers run deep” and the natives sing and pray to four mercurial deities: Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Agwe, God of Water; Erzulie, Goddess of Love; and Papa Ge, Demon of Death.
At Columbia’s Drama Learning Center, director Stephanie Lynn Williams and the Red Branch Theatre Company have taken a more modest approach—partly a function of limited resources, no doubt, yet also appropriate for this particular musical, which is more or less a fairy tale. Once on This Island is presented as a story told to a little girl on a stormy night—in a flash of theatrical magic, the girl (Mycah Brown) becomes the story’s heroine, Ti Moune, an orphan saved by the gods from drowning and raised by loving foster parents. In another flash (deftly staged by Williams), Little Ti Moune gives way to her older self, who wonders, in the moving solo “Waiting for Life,” why her life was spared. “Don’t single me out,” she begs the gods, “And then forget me.”
The gods hear her prayer and decide to intervene. They arrange for Ti Moune, whose dark skin brands her as a peasant, to fall in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, one of the island’s “grand hommes,” the wealthy, light-skinned people who live on the other side of the mountain. Though a seemingly unbridgeable gulf separates Ti Moune from Daniel, she sets off on a journey to find and win her love.
As the older Ti Moune, Anastasia Stewart gives an uneven performance. Her voice is lovely in her middle and lower registers, but she struggles a bit to sustain higher notes. She as well as Michelle Harmon and Wil Lewis III, who play Ti Moune’s foster parents, adopt a measured, almost ritualistic manner of speaking and moving—the effect intensifies the more serious moments, notably Ti Moune’s song of farewell to her parents (“Ti Moune”), but there are trade-offs: for all its high spirits and lively music, the production has surprisingly few laughs, and I suspect the primary reason is its overly formal style.
The show comes most alive when the entire company gathers to sing and dance to Ahrens and Flaherty’s excellent score. Set constructor Corey Brown and scenic painter Erika Hagen frame the action with a jungle-like mesh that seems to sprout from a single, sturdy tree on the apron, but behind the proscenium the stage is bare save for a quartet of vividly painted platforms, one for each god, that double as beds and other set pieces as needed. When Williams and her choreographers—Dawn Barnes, Jason Kimmell, Jenny Male, and Mark Allen, who also serves as dance caption—fill the empty space with motion, the energy pulsing through the theatre is infectious. Though it contains only three musicians, the band conducted by Dustin Merrell produces a full, rich sound.
In addition to the opening number, “We Dance,” which swiftly introduces the island’s religious and caste systems, the ensemble dances give each god an opportunity to steal the spotlight. As Agwe, Cory Jones uses a commanding baritone to conjure a storm in “Rain,” and Samantha McEwen’s Erzulie shines through the beautiful love song, “The Human Heart.” Mark Allen’s Papa Ge is truly creepy as he glides onstage with a retinue of demons to claim a victim in “Forever Yours.” The most joyful music comes from Felicia Akunwafor’s Asaka, who guides Ti Moune to Daniel, accompanied by choruses of birds, frogs, and island breezes, in the rousing celebration of Earth’s bounty, “Mama Will Provide.”
Costumer Zakiya Kambui dresses the gods in exotic robes whose distinctive colors—green for Asaka, blue for Agwe, red for Erzulie, black for Papa Ge—provide a unifying vision and help the gods to stand out from the mortals. That said, I wish Kambui, Williams, and the ensemble had done more to differentiate the numerous roles—nearly every one of the eighteen performers plays multiple characters, and it isn’t always clear, for example, whether that’s supposed to be Agwe in the chorus or an anonymous man, whether that’s Little Ti Moune at the center of a dance or simply the Little Girl.
The character of Daniel is the most problematic; unlike the Little Mermaid’s prince, who is divided from his love by species, Daniel is the scion of colonialist oppressors and snobs. One must search long and hard to find a more condescending declaration of love than Daniel’s “Some Girls,” in which he praises Ti Moune for her childlike simplicity and lack of sophistication. (“Some girls you learn from,” he sings, “Some you teach.”) Eric Hufford has a tender voice and kind face, but otherwise he brings little to the role to make us believe Daniel worthy of Ti Moune’s love. To their credit, Ahrens and Flaherty do not force an implausible ending; still, it is difficult to invest oneself fully in Ti Moune’s quest when one increasingly finds oneself wishing she’d stayed home.
At only 90 minutes, Once on This Island moves swiftly enough—and the score is so tuneful—that one has little time to linger on its flaws. What dialogue there is serves mostly as a thread connecting a series of highly pleasurable songs, and the story, like all good fairy tales, touches something enduring within us. I can’t say I left the theatre having found a new show to cherish, but I enjoyed myself.
Once on This Island is playing at the Drama Learning Center, located at 9130-I Red Branch Road in Columbia, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM, through October 29th. Tickets are $15-$20. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 410-997-9352 or go to www.redbranchtheatre.com.
Photo credits: Erika Hagen