Your affection for Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical Once on This Island may well depend upon how much patience you have for narratives about young heroines who sacrifice all for the love of men who clearly don’t deserve them. (See also The Little Mermaid, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, etc., ad nauseam.) Based on Trinidad-born American writer Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel My Love, My Love: or, The Peasant Girl (which borrowed from Hans Christian Andersen’s fable), the great advantage of this show (book and lyrics by Ahrens, music by Flaherty) is its emphasis on communal storytelling. It’s framed as a story told to a little girl one stormy night to distract her from the thunder, with the ensemble mostly playing multiple roles as they split the narrator duties, adding percussive music and sound effects throughout the 90-minute tale, and joining in joyous dance sequences.
Michael Arden’s staging won the Tony Award for best revival in 2018 after originating at New York’s Circle in the Square. The proscenium setting at Cadillac Palace doesn’t offer the same opportunity to feel completely surrounded by the story’s warm tropical setting, though there is some limited audience seating on the stage itself. But this touring production still works its magic as the calypso-inspired music and Camille A. Brown’s choreography join together with aural and physical alchemy, creating waves of emotions that flow past the gap of the orchestra pit. (The band, under Steven Cuevas’s musical direction, perches atop elevated platforms onstage.)
As Ti Moune, the peasant girl orphaned by a storm at an early age, found in a tree by her adoptive parents, and carried away by passion for a rich boy she nurses back to health after a car accident, Courtnee Carter is a beguiling presence throughout. The story does allow the sins of colonialism and subsequent colorism to come through clearly. Daniel (Tyler Hardwick), the rich boy, is descended from a Napoleonic-era French colonist, Armand, who fathered a son, Beauxhomme, with an island woman. After that son rose against his father in a revolution, Armand fled back to France, but only after cursing the children of Beauxhomme by saying, “Black blood will keep them forever on the island, while their hearts yearn forever for France.”
The story of the Beauxhomme curse is presented here as a shadow play, echoing Kara Walker’s pieces depicting the brutality of slavery in silhouettes. Heavy metal gates keep Daniel’s family, who run a luxury hotel, shut off from the poverty around them, and suggest the split identity with which Armand cursed them.
Yet Daniel is taken with Ti Moune, who journeys across the island to find him after his family removes him from his post-crash sickbed in her hut. Ti Moune’s journey requires the help of the gods: Agwe (Jamaul Bakare), the god of water; Asaka (Kyle Ramar Freeman), the mother of the earth; and Erzulie (Cassondra James), the goddess of love. Meantime, the malevolent spirit Papa Ge (Tamyra Gray) hopes to claim Ti Moune’s life after the girl promises to exchange it for Daniel’s. (Oh honey.)
So yes, the underlying theme of self-sacrificing women can grate, to say the least. But there’s no denying that it’s a trope whose roots run deep and twisted throughout many cultures, and at least here we see Ti Moune’s sacrifice bearing fruit in breaking down the race and class barriers for future generations. Vocally, this show is spectacular, with Freeman a particular powerhouse. The costumes by Clint Ramos pop against the weathered sheet-metal walls of Dane Laffrey’s set. And kids don’t come any more adorable than MiMi Crossland as little Ti Moune and as the child we meet at the beginning. (Crossland alternates performances with Mariama Diop, who I’m sure is equally adorable.)
And unlike Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Once on This Island doesn’t pretend that romantic love always conquers all, at least not in our own lifetimes. v