Reviewed by George Basler
On paper, Once On This Island, an unlikely marriage of Caribbean folk lore and Broadway conventions, sounds like a dubious undertaking. But any skepticism quickly goes by the boards.
The SRO Productions III musical, which opened this past weekend (Jan. 22-23) at the Goodwill Theatre’s Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City, is a thoroughly captivating show. As performed by an energetic and appealing cast, it is an exuberant, if bittersweet, fairy tale marred only by a somewhat muddled ending.
Created by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics), the team behind Ragtime and Seussical, the show’s original source material is Trinidad-born Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel, My Love, My Love: Or, the Peasant Girl. It was nominated for a Tony Award for best musical in 1991 and won the Laurence Olivier Award in London for the best musical in 1995.
Set on a small island in the French Antilles, the musical is a story within a story.
After a devastating storm, villagers work to calm a terrified girl by telling her a fable. At the center of the fable is the romance between a peasant girl, Ti Moune (Annie Graham), and Daniel (Erik J. Tofte), an aristocratic rich boy from the other side of the island whom she nurses back to life after an accident.
The romance is stymied by the fact that the rich folk, the “grandhommes,” despise the peasants, and the peasants don’t much like the rich folk either. Overseeing the action is a collection of lively gods who govern the water, earth, love and, alas, death.
While the show touches on issues of racism, colonialism and social inequality, it doesn’t explore these themes in any great depth. Instead the emphasis is on the fairy tale and fantasy elements of the story.
At its center, Once On This Island is pure theatrical spectacle that immerses the audience in music, dancing and movement. The large, 16-member SRO III cast carries it off with great exuberance.
Credit goes to director Scott Fisher who skillfully keeps the action flowing while mixing in some inventive touches using masks and props. The choreography by Ann Szymaniak and Anne Trebilcock is crisp and energetic. Particularly effective are the show’s rousing opening number, “We Dance,” and “The Ball/Ti Moure’s Dance” in which a staid upper-crust ball turns into a lively Caribbean dance-off.
The production does not strain for grandiose special effects. Instead it emphasizes simplicity and intimacy, which is a very good choice.
One potentially touchy subject is the racial make-up of the cast. The show was originally written with African-American as performers. One of its main themes is the conflict between the light-skinned rich people and the dark-skinned peasants. The SRO III cast, while diverse, is predominantly white and that, of course, negates this theme.
But the show’s creators have provided alternative dialogue so that the musical can be performed by a mixed race cast, Fisher said. And the show’s messages of the price of love and the damage caused by social prejudice are universal ones.
Unfortunately, the SRO III production suffered from a somewhat flat and confusing finale. The ending has nowhere near the emotional impact that it should because of Ahrens and Flaherty’s uninspired writing. The production also suffers from sound problems that muffled some of the songs. This seems to be because the musical is performed in the round meaning the actors do not face the entire audience all the time.
Still, for the most part, the SRO III production weaves an infectious spell that makes for an entertaining evening.
One strong point is the cast’s performance of Flaherty and Ahrens’ sparkling score, which skillfully combines calypso-style rhythmic tunes with pop influences and Broadway-style ballads.
Graham has a sweetly pleasing voice as Ti Moune and brings a poignancy to the ingénue role. Tofte sings well and catches both Daniel’s haughtiness and his love for Ti Moune. Alas, the character turns out to be nowhere near worthy of her love.
In the end, though, the show is a true ensemble piece with nearly all performers given a chance to shine, which they do. Particularly noteworthy is Anna Simek’s performance of “The Human Heart,” arguably the best song in the show. Lynette Daniels and Chris Nickerson, as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents, also do a fine job with a ballad that expresses their heartache when the young girl leaves home to follow her love.
Attention also should go to Sadie Graham as little Ti Moune. The sixth grader at Chenango Valley Middle School has great stage presence.
Once On This Island is well worth the visit.
IF YOU GO
Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Jan. 29-30) and at 2 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 31) at Goodwill Theatre, 48 Willow St., Johnson City. General seating tickets at $20 can be purchased online at sroproductionsonline.com or by calling (800) 838-3006.