Once on this Island, the diverting Caribbean-themed musical running at Olney Theatre Center through May 4, is more than just a pastel-colored stroll through island culture to a calypso beat. Of Calypso there is plenty, and the strong cast delivers the musical’s 19 numbers, ranging from upbeat, Broadway-style ensemble pieces to solo ballads, with soul and timing.
But behind the pop and island-influenced melodies and delightful choreography lie deeper, and sometimes darker, messages about social and economic injustice and the need for racial reconciliation. Happily, those messages are conveyed through the hopeful media of song and story, which, as the Storytellers sing in the show’s final number (“Why We Tell the Story”) have the power to defuse anger, alleviate sorrow, teach forgiveness, and build community.
The first in OTC’s new Family Series, Once on this Island is, in fact, about the transformative possibilities of stories, an important element in the oral culture of Haiti, the unnamed “jewel of the Antilles” where the action takes place. Creators Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) frame the folktale of the young dark-skinned peasant girl Ti Moune and her love for the lighter-skinned grande homme Daniel against the backdrop of a storm ravaging the island.
Native storytellers share Ti Moune’s tale as a means of comforting – and, one surmises, instructing – a young girl distraught by the storm. In this production, director Alan Muraoko adds another suggestive layer, connecting the ravages of Superstorm Sandy on the U.S. East Coast with the perennial tempests in the Caribbean. Before the first words of Once on this Island are sung or spoken, we hear repeated emergency broadcast warnings in American English, see American Red Cross volunteers move stacks of care packages, and watch as a small family (father, mother, daughter) huddles over an iPad, presumably discovering the story of the resilient peasant girl who would employ love to overcome divisions of race, class, and social standing. In a neat trick, Muraoko uses the same “family” of actors to play Little Ti Moune and the mature Ti Moune and Daniel in the musical itself.
Based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel of star-crossed love, My Love, My Love: Or, The Peasant Girl, and drawing on elements of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, as well as Romeo and Juliet, Once on this Island movingly depicts the clash of starkly different worlds: Ti Moune’s close-knit if impoverished community of “black as night” peasants on one side of the island and Daniel’s light-skinned grande hommes on the other, wealthy descendants of French planters who control the reins of economic power.
Moving freely between these worlds are the local deities Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Theresa Cunningham); Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Fahnlohnee Harris-Tate); Agwe, God of Water (Nicholas Ward); and Papa Ge, Demon of Death (James T. Lane), whom the restless Ti Moune implores for adventure (the song “Waiting for Life”). The result is another rainstorm, a car crash, and the injured and unconscious Daniel delivered into Ti Moune’s care. The rousing cast number “Pray,” reprised by the Storytellers later in the production, documents the beginning of Ti Moune’s love for the suddenly displaced Daniel, whom she nurses from the brink of death.
A highlight of the production is “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” a history lesson in song and spoken word about Daniel’s French-blood ancestors, whose enslavement of local peoples created the island’s ongoing racial and economic divisions. The story is inventively told through shadow puppetry (artfully designed by Jim Napolitano) and the backlighting of Marc Hurst. Its outlines will be familiar to those with knowledge of Haiti’s tragic history of economic exploitation.
The legacy of those sad days is borne out in two songs that follow: The melancholy solo “Some Girls,” in which Daniel (a fine Eymard Cabling) acknowledges the painful reality of class divisions (“some girls you marry, some girls you love”) and “The Ball,” wherein Ti Moune’s (Aisha Jackson’s) lively Calypso dancing – perhaps the production’s most exciting choreographic moment – highlights her outsider status in the world of the Beauxhommes. Sadly, Ti Moune must confront the truth of her situation: Daniel is unwilling to challenge social convention (and break off an arranged marriage) in order to give himself fully to her. A poignant reprise of “Forever Yours,” in which a wonderfully expressive Papa Ge, Demon of Death (James T. Lane), returns to claim Daniel’s life, finds the despondent Ti Moune offering her life for that of the man she loves.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
Closes May 4, 2014
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $32 – $63
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Much of Once on this Island is light, colorful and no deeper than the shallowest tidal pools. The singing and dancing is uniformly high quality, with special mention for the work of Cabling, Jackson, and the “gods” who watch over them. Milagros Ponce De Leon’s spare, atmospheric set evokes tree houses, tumble-down island bungalows, and ships’ masts, nicely setting off Helen Huang’s vibrant island costumes. The orchestra under direction of Darius Smith smoothly navigates the busy slate of musical numbers, and Darren Lee’s choreography is first-rate.
Children of a certain age will delight in what Island has to offer, although one or two scenes may be intense for younger children. Adults will find the deeper meaning in reflecting on what centuries of oppression have done to our sunny tropical neighbors – a conversation this Island winks at (if happily), before leading us into another song.
Once On This Island . Book and Lyrics By Lynn Ahrens . Music by Stephen Flaherty . Based on “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy . Directed by Alan Muraoka . Choreography by Darren Lee . Music Direction by Darius Smith . Featuring Aisha Jackson, Eymard Cabling, Ariel Cunningham, Shelby Renée Fountain, Theresa Cunningham, Fahnlohnee Harris-Tate, James T. Lane, Nicholas Ward, Kellee Knighten Hough, Wendell Jordan, David Little, Duyen Washington, and Stephen Scott Wormley . Set design: Milagros Ponce De León, Costume Design: Helen Huang . Lighting Design: Marc Hurst . Sound Design: Jeffrey Dorfman . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Deryl Davis.