It’s worth the trip to Falls Church, VA to see how Creative Cauldron has managed to fit Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s beloved Once on This Island into the tiny ArtsSpace.
On a Caribbean island, a storm rolls in, frightening a small girl whom villagers console by telling the fable of Ti Moune—a tiny orphan found in a tree by the superstitious peasants Mama Euralie (Jade Jones) and Tonton Julian (Harrison G. Lee). Julian and Euralie, at first reluctant to take in the girl because they live a simple life and have very little—making them question their ability to feed another mouth— are swayed by Erzulie, the Goddess of Love (Daphne Epps) to adopt Ti Moune (Chyna Wooten as the child).
For Ti Moune must live. She has a greater purpose in life that interests all the gods: Erzulie; Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Iyona Blake); Agwe, God of Water (Malcolm Lee); and Papa Ge, God of Death (Carl Williams).
With the gods watching, Ti Moune (Tiara N. Whaley as the adult) grows. One day she witnesses the horrific car crash of a rich man, the hotel heir Daniel Beauxhommes (Ian Anthony Coleman). He comes from the “other” side of the island where the lighter skinned descendants of French colonizers reside and have money that affords them luxuries such as cars. Ti Moune nurses Daniel to health as Tonton Julian walks, over many days, to the hotel owned by Daniel’s family, telling them of their son’s accident.
When Daniel leaves, Ti Moune is distraught. She feels her purpose in life was to save him. Be with him forever. She crosses the island on foot to find Daniel and express her love, much to the dismay of Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie. For Ti Moune is a dark-skinned, rural girl and considered poor. So poor she has no shoes. How will the “grand hommes” (the general term for the lighter, richer people) respond to and treat her?
But Ti Moune charms the city and Daniel, who eventually returns her love. Unfortunately, Daniel is betrothed to, and marries, Andrea (Avia Fields); they are both grand hommes and that is the way of the island. The rich marry the rich. The poor marry the poor. The light skinned marry the light skinned. And so on. Division is life.
The Tony nominated Once on This Island, which debuted in 1990, is parts folklore, fable, and fairytale — the reimagined, Caribbean take of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” (non-Disney version) as written by Rosa Guy in her 1985 novel “My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl.” “The Little Mermaid” and Island’s plots are nearly identical. Right down to the beautiful girl promising her life (in this case to Papa Ge, the death god) so that her love may live. For this is how Ti Moune, in part, helps nurse him back to health. And, when Papa Ge comes to collect payment—long after Daniel is healed—Ti Moune chooses to die rather that live without her love or act out against him in anger and vengeance. For, he has already married another.
After death, she returns to life as a tree growing on Daniel’s property that literally and figuratively breaks down the walls dividing the people of the island.
Like “The Little Mermaid”, Island touches on the themes of xenophobia and prejudice but through a more modern lens that considers how colonialism affected countries. Namely, that it further divided people. Perceived superiority of those with lighter skin/descendant from colonizers persists today as does the notion that having more possessions (especially ones aligned with Western ways of life) makes one richer. Speaking from first-hand experience, I know that the Malagasy (those from Madagascar) hold these beliefs.
The story—as oddly sweet as a tale about unrequited love can be — is thin on substance and depth. But it strives for both. Using the gentle hand with which parents rock children to sleep, it tells “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes”—who are the progeny of French colonizer Armand (Malcolm Lee) and his island native mistress. It’s an educational, important side-step from the main tale about the love/sexual relationships colonizers and locals forged told in kid-friendly fashion and with warm humor. Lee is understate-ably comical and Madame Armand (Avia Fields) is a spitting image of Madonna at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards.
One small note: the script uses some questionable imagery to describe how this evolved into Ti Moune’s and Daniel’s predicament, namely that a rural woman may make a grand homme “rise like yeast” but that together they’ll “never stand before a priest.”
Creative Cauldron has done a lot with this show, creating the feel of a tropical island where colors abound and festive celebrations of life outlast, outshine, and out-fun those done anywhere else. They lack the space for dazzling sets and outrages costumes (Gods, after all, can be huge, no?), but they paint a lovely picture: on the floor a sweeping wave reaches for the shore and a simple white backdrop reflects colors and moods. Black pillars with built-in ladders fill in for trees and double as objects that give dimension and angles to the cornucopia of movement.
The dancing is choreographed, often, to look wild and spontaneous. Mostly, it jives with the music and draws from recognizable, joyful African and island dances. While some of the choreography seemed familiar, thus less interesting, Ti Moune’s dance at the Ball at Daniel’s family’s hotel is pure beauty and Epps also has a solo performance worthy of applause. Both women lose their selves in the music and the movement, just as the full casts does during the number “Pray”—easily the show’s best scene with its spirited dance-off and voodoo vibe – where the cast seemed to find its mojo and sink into the rhythms of the performance.
The simple set allows for plenty of movement and locales, as Ti Moune travels from one side of the island to the other, going from the rural, poor village to the ritzy tourist draws. Costumes, too, are simple except when Blake, Epps, Lee, and Williams strut about in full god attire with outlandish accent pieces and headdresses.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
May 8 – 31
Creative Cauldron at
ArtSpace Falls Church
410 South Maple Avenue
Falls Church, VA
1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $40 – $50
The show is written for big voices, and the cast does not disappoint. In fact, the singing overall overshadows the acting. Once on This Island has only one short scene that is not sung, so it is a showplace for vocal talent.
Everyone gets their turn to shine. Iyona Blake displays not only the best pipes, especially during the number “Mama Will Provide”, but also some of the best acting, alongside Whaley as the bright-eyed, naive older Ti Moune. The women are phenomenal: Blake, Jones, Whaley, Epps, Fields, and even Chyna Wooten sparkle in their solos.
Overall, it is an ensemble piece that would suffer without any of the musically-blessed, talented cast, and the nearly two hour show (no breaks!) flies past with nary a blink thanks to Matt Connor’s direction and the up-tempo music, led by Walter “Bobby” McCoy.
Once on this Island is an enjoyable, updated parable complete for all ages both for its music and it’s a history lesson which older kids are sure to learn and adults are sure to appreciate.
Once on This Island . Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens . Music by Stephen Flaherty . Directed by Matt Conner . Featuring Iyona Blake, Ian Anthony Coleman, Daphne Epps, Avia Fields, Jade Jones, Malcolm Lee, Harrison G. Lee, Tiara N. Whaley, Carl Williams, Chyna Wooten, and Hermela Samuel . Choreography: Kara-Tameika Watkins . Scenic and Costume Design: Margie Jarvis . Lighting Design: Joseph Lovins . Stage Manager: Christopher Riherd . Musicians: Walter “Bobby” McCoy (Piano and Music Director), David Burrelli (Bass), Jim Hoffman (Percussion), Mila Weiss (Reeds) . Produced by Creative Cauldron . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.