'Once On This Island' - Come Away, Come Away
Once On This Island
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Directed by Jennifer Condon and Jesse Strachman, Music Direction by Dan Rodriguez, Choreography by Jennifer Condon; Production Stage Manager, Jean MacFarland; Costume Design, Lindsay Hurley; Lighting Design, PJ Strachman; Scenic Design, Erik Diaz; Scenic Artist, Holly Diaz; Makeup Design, Emily Lamkin and the OOTI Makeup Team; Graphic Design, Kristin Boucher
Performances through October 24 at Arsenal Center for the Arts, Black Box, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487, 800-838-3006 or www.bluesprucetheatre.org
Once On This Island is an engaging fable, told with great charm and energy by the youthful Blue Spruce Theatre Company. With the ping of steel drums, costumes reflecting the colors of the Caribbean Sea, and a backdrop of fishnets and bamboo fans, the intimate Black Box at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown is converted into the tropical setting for the story of Ti Moune. A peasant girl falls in love with a "grand homme" from the other side of the island and follows her heart on a journey through pain, grief, faith, love, and hope.
Musical Director Dan Rodriguez and his five-member orchestra provide the lively calypso beat of Stephen Flaherty's music from their perch in the upstage left corner, infusing the small theatre with rhythmic gaiety. The multi-talented cast dance their hearts out from the opening number ("We Dance"), expressing more feeling with their bodies than can be provided by lyrics of even so talented a librettist as Lynn Ahrens. As Ti Moune, Kira Cowan virtually explodes across the floor, leaping and twirling with tremendous body control in a joyous display of her love of her family and life on the Jewel of the Antilles. Shadowing her as little Ti Moune, Alexa Niziak shows amazing talent and poise for one so young in the spotlight. Wearing her hat as choreographer, co-director Jennifer Condon creates beautiful solo pieces, as well as numbers for the entire company that move the story and make artistic use of the very small floor space.
Narrative is provided by four storytellers who become four gods in the tale: Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Kendra Alati); Agwé, god of Water (Steven Martin); Erzulie, goddess of Love (Alaina Fragoso); and Papa Ge, Demon of Death (David Lucey). Worshipped by the peasants, they bring forth a disastrous flood and then rescue little Ti Moune and place her with loving adoptive parents Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian. When she grows up, she prays to the gods to let her meet a grand homme. Erzulie says to give her love, but Papa Ge agrees only to test which is stronger, love or death. When the car of Daniel Beauxhomme crashes in a storm, Ti Moune nurses him and they fall in love. Papa Ge comes to take his life, but Ti Moune offers hers in exchange. When Daniel is returned to his people, Ti Moune sets off on her own to find him so they can be wed.
Of course her faith and goodness are severely tested on the journey and even when she reaches his side. The town gossips comment on everything that is different about her, and she learns that Daniel is promised to an upper crust girl for an arranged marriage. Despite her broken heart, Ti Moune remains true to her inner core when Papa Ge offers her the chance to reverse their bargain if she will kill Daniel. When she refuses, she proves that love is stronger than death. Daniel's wedding takes place as planned and Ti Moune fulfills her obligation to Papa Ge. However, fairy tales must have a happy ending and Ti Moune is reincarnated as a tree. A young peasant girl and Daniel's son play in her branches, assuring that her legacy will survive and the story will continue to be told.
With elements of both Romeo and Juliet and The Little Mermaid, Once On This Island puts a happy face on a sad tale. Rather than focusing on the tragedy, Ahrens hones in on the resilience and hopefulness as personified by Ti Moune and the peasants from her village. Their lives are simple and fraught with danger from natural disasters (or the whims of the gods), yet they sing and dance in celebration of life itself. This simple joy is infectious and lovingly spread by the company. Alati is the perfect Earth Mother with a huge voice and ample girth, the better to embrace you with, my dear! Fragoso sweetly delivers the credo of the love goddess in "The Human Heart." Abigail Cordell (Mama Euralie) sings with a lovely, heartfelt voice.
While Cowan's acting and dancing are her genuine strengths, she sings con brio, but her voice is a little thin on the higher and more sustained notes. I didn't find any chemistry between Cowan and David Carney's Daniel. He plays the role more haughty than romantic and seems miscast. As his betrothed, Jackie Theoharis puts on all the right airs, and her dancing in the ensemble is notable. David Lucey is appropriately creepy as Papa Ge, and Ian Flynn (Tonton Julian), Kaedon Gray (Gatekeeper, Armand, Daniel's father) and Steven Martin (Agwé) lend strong support.
The set decorations are simple, but provide a background and atmosphere with the floor painted to resemble sand and sea, and the cast is barefoot, evoking a carefree mood. Emily Lamkin and her makeup team are to be singled out for some really cool face painting. The designers are quite resourceful when it comes to creating rainstorms and ocean waves. You can almost feel the tropical island breeze. Co-directors Condon and Jesse Strachman succeed in putting together all the pieces to tell Ti Moune's story with emotion and energy. It's easy to see why Once On This Island was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 1991. If you want to experience something that is increasingly rare, i.e., a musical with songs you can hum on the way out of the theatre, follow the sound of the bongos and steel drum to Blue Spruce Theatre.