By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III “The People’s Critic”
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I don’t usually assign my readers “homework” in advance of seeing a show, but it seems appropriate in connection with Theater Under the Stars’ current offering of the 1990 Broadway musical, “Once on This Island.” Directed by Michael Arden and featuring the music of Stephen Flaherty, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, I would suggest that prospective audience members prepare a bit before attending this somewhat unusual, one-act production. (No intermission). I make this recommendation because there is quite a lot going on during this compact and complex 90 minutes on a very crowded stage, and depicting the modest beach-hut world of the lower class on an island in the French Antilles. (Scenic designer, Dane Laffrey). It is a world where the fair-skinned and wealthier descendants of earlier aristocratic French settlers (known as the Grand Hommes) live separately from the island’s darker native peasants.
As the play opens, a little girl (Mimi Crossland & Mariama Diop alternate in the role) is terrified by a well-staged and frightening storm that crosses the island. The action that follows is musically guided by a chorus of local Storytellers portrayed by McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Briana Brooks, George L. Brown, Michael Ivan Carrier, Jay Donnell, Alex Joseph Grayson, Phyre Hawkins, Savy Jackson, Tatiana Lofton and Robert Zelaya. They undertake to calm the frightened child by singing the mythical tale of another young island girl named Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter), who according to legend was once caught in a similar storm brought about by Agwe, the god of the sea (Jahmaul Bakare). The raging storm left Ti Moune clinging to a tree to survive the flooding. Because much of this tale is sung rapidly and with distinct island accents, some of the lyrics were not clearly audible for the audience, as was the case in the vibrant and undulating full-company opening number, “We Dance.”
(Choreographer, Camille A. Brown, Music Director, Steven Cuevas). For these reasons I suggest serious readers go online in advance of attendance to become familiar with the plot structure, and perhaps some of the music itself.
That being said, there is a certain mystery and enchantment surrounding this musical folktale that plays out under the glow of dreamlike lighting (designers, Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer). Orphaned Ti Moune is adopted by Mama Euralie (Danielle Lee Greaves) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin), and their haunting song, “One Small Girl,” celebrates Ti Moune’s rescue. Soon she has grown to be a lovely young woman. It is then that we first hear the beautiful voice of Miss Carter, with her lashing vocal power for the prayerful song, “Waiting for Life.” Ti Moune imagines what it would be like to mingle with the wealthy and fast-driving grand hommes who crisscross the island in their fine cars.
The gods hear her prayer, and Erzulie, the Goddess of Love (Cassondra James), wishes to give Ti Moune the gift of love, while the sinister Demon of Death called Papa Ge (Tamyra Gray) proposes a challenge to see which is more powerful, love or death. Asaka, the Goddess of Mother Earth (Kyle Ramar Freeman) joins the other gods for the torch-lit and whirling excitement of “And the Gods Heard Her Prayer.” Agwe then creates a storm that causes the car crash of a handsome young grand hommes gentleman named Daniel Beauxhommes (Tyler Hardwick). Ti Moune witnesses the accident and runs to his aid singing the beautiful and haunting, “Finding Daniel.” Miss Carter joins forces with Mr. Boykin and Miss Greaves as Ti Moune and her adoptive parents sing both the tender, “Pray,” and the song titled, “Ti Moune,” which cautions us to, “…choose your dreams with care.” There is also a fascinating shadow play as we hear, “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” but there is great fun ahead as gaily dressed Mr. Freeman (with a fruit-laden headdress that would be the envy of Carmen Miranda), literally lights up the stage as the explosive Mother Earth. Singing, “Mama Will Provide,” he is surrounded by the joyous and whirling chorus of the ensemble.
Unaware that since childhood Daniel has been betrothed to Andrea (Briana Brooks) among his people on the other side of the island, Ti Moune falls in love him. She has saved his life by making a kind of deal with the devil in the person of evil Papa Ge. But for the complicated details of those final chapters you will need to buy a ticket. Don’t forget to do your homework.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND* continues through Sunday March 1st at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday at 8pm, and 2pm matinee performances on both Saturday and Sunday. For tickets visit the website at www.tuts.com, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).
A member of both The Lambs Club Inc. and The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of DAVID DOW BENTLEY III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com . E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
*For a Production preview visit: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1tt0luXtKXOqkltZG8p4FgPBb7RmpIDKD/view?usp=drivesdk