BWW Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, Southwark Playhouse
One night, the archipelago of the Antilles is shaken by a terrifying storm. To distract a little girl from the wind and rain, people from the village get together to tell her the story of Ti Moune, a peasant orphan who falls in love with a young "grand homme" (one of the light-skinned descendants of the original French planters and their slaves) who lives on the other side of the island.
The 1990 musical written by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) recently received a revival on Broadway (which won a Tony Award) directed by Michael Arden and starring none other than Lea Salonga as Erzulie, Goddess of Love. Now, choreographer and director Lee Proud brings the heartwarming musical to Southwark Playhouse presented by the British Theatre Academy in a vibrant and tireless production that introduces an array of emerging talent.
The space barely contains the size of the show as two worlds rush to meet on Proud's traverse stage for 85 minutes. Storytelling is at the heart of it and the director makes the most of its imaginative leitmotifs by employing simple objects and reclaimed materials to create a foreign world where Gods pull the strings of the universe.
Fishnets become the unruly storm, a stepladder a tree, and newpapers are used as cuffs and collars for the élite. The narration is striking in its ensemble parts. The performers slightly overcrowd the slim scene resulting in a sometimes cramped choreography that, however, doesn't have a single weak link. The company is cohesive and precise, exposing the thumping heart of the material.
This said, there seems to be a small battle between the band and the singers, who have to wrangle each other to gain the upper hand when the major ensemble numbers are concerned. This is the only unfortunate side to the production, as some words get lost in the frenzy of bodies and music but the company still manage to deliver a remarkable piece of theatre. The soundscape buzzes with energy: from the drums and rhythm flowing in the veins of the calypso-infused score to the natural elements of seaside and land, it's a feast for the ears.
Chris Ma's orchestrations are warm and passionate. The cast - all triple threats - inhabit the songs with beautiful harmonies that, when their minor dispute with the musicians fully allows it, soar with ease. Their vocal endurance is impressive, with Aviva Tulley stealing the show at any given moment as Erzulie. Chrissie Bhima is big-hearted and jubilant in her interpretation of the naïve Ti Moune and is matched in power by Marie-Anna Caufour, who joins the astounding collection of talent assembled by Proud as Ti Moune's adopted mother Euralie.
The female-driven narrative shines in the director's hands, who delivers a diverse and powerful tale of love and understanding. Ti Moune's ultimate sacrifice unites the people of the island and the musical becomes a celebration of diversity and solidarity.
Photo credit: Elza Wilmot