BWW Reviews: Hattiloo Goes to Haiti for ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
Hattiloo Theatre, the shiny "new kid on the block" in the midtown theatre district of Memphis, has shed its "ugly duckling" feathers and suddenly become a sleek swan; no longer limited in facilities and seating, it has taken exotic flight with a fanciful musical staging of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's calypso-driven ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, based on Rosa Guy's MY LOVE, MY LOVE; or, THE PEASANT GIRL.
As a storm rages on the French Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, the huddled peasants weave the tale of the orphaned "Ti Mourne" (a charming Keia Johnson), who rescues the light-skinned, socially elevated "Daniel" from a near-fatal crash. Her nursing, however, is not a solo act; having originally been saved from flood waters by the gods that rule the island, these meddlesome deities once again become involved in her efforts to save the life of the young man who has captured her fancy. These gods - "Asaka," Mother of the Earth; "Agwe," God of Water; "Erzulie," Goddess of Love; and, disturbingly, "Papa Ge," God of Death - can't resist poking their mythological noses into the affair - and, particularly in the case of Papa Ge - with some disturbing results.
When Daniel, who has no knowledge of the lovely girl who has saved his life, is taken back to the other side of the island and to the grandes homes who rule there, Ti Mourne follows him, proves that she is responsible for having nursed him, and wins his heart. However, (shades of SOUND OF MUSIC's "Maria" and "the Baroness") "there's trouble in them there banana trees": In a familial power play, Daniel has been, since childhood, betrothed to "Andrea," whose demeaning ploy to undermine Ti Mourne quickly becomes evident. (A particularly poignant song, "Some Girls," addresses this - "some girls you marry, some you love.") At this point, the demonic Papa Ge seizes upon the opportunity to exert his influence. Yet, as this is a musical designed to set shoulders to shifting and hips to swaying, there is a charming, upbeat ending (Hint: Remember what happens to the separated lovers in the old ballad "Barbara Allen"?) (By the way, there's no time to look at one's wrist watch here: The ending of the musical, as written, rushes to its conclusion; so, don't blink.)
As I watched this exuberant, colorful entertainment (performed, I might add, by some explosively talented singers/dancers), I couldn't help thinking of allusions to other works. With its "Under the Sea" tunes and pop lyrics, I thought immediately of Disney's version of Hans Christian Anderson's THE LITTLE MERMAID; with its ego-driven gods, I was reminded of Sir Laurence Olivier and company "lording it over" poor Harry Hamlin in CLASH OF THE TITANS; with its ill-fated romance, I recalled a recent performance by Renee Fleming in Dvorak's RUSALKA. (Of course, there are always Romeo and what's-her-name? lurking around the edges as well.)
Director Tony Horne, coming off a triumphant "high" with last year's amazing Playhouse on the Square production of THE COLOR PURPLE, has trimmed the epic overtones of that piece in favor of a buoyant, fast-moving treatment; and it works well. Even with an intermission, the play runs under two hours; and I have a friend with an "everything's always twenty minutes too long" mantra who would be well pleased with the pacing here. Aiding him considerably are the talented musicians under the direction of Dennis Whitehead, the colorful costumes of Andrea "Abeo" Porter Washington-Brown (I particularly like Mother of the Earth Asaka's ensemble - it's as if the silk flower section of Hobby Lobby had suddenly exploded), the dazzling choreography by Emma Crystal and Jaynie Stokes (even my aged limbs were trying to creak their way into those terpsichorean dips and dives), and, of course, that gifted cast. As the ill-fated Ti Mourne, Keia Johnson ranks right up there with the best Disney heroines (I'm surprised the powers-there-that-be haven't realized the animation potential of this piece), and tender-but-traditional Daniel gets better than he deserves in the performance of Guillermo Jemmott (who had impressed me previously as "Peter" in Theatre Memphis' production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR). All of the gods and goddesses are first-rate (Marc Gill is a riveting dancer -- and a dangerous presence as "Papa Ge").
Executive/Artistic Director Ekundayo Bandele has set a bar quite high for future performances; judging from what I saw today, he has the talent and staff to lift it even higher.