by Lynn on January 30, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Once On This Island

At Ada Slaight Hall, 585 Dundas St. E, Toronto. Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams. Music director, Lily Ling. Choreographed by Marc Kimelman. Set by Michael Gianfrancesco. Costumes by Alex Amini. Lighting by Bonnie Beecher. Sound by Michael Laird. Starring: Jewelle Blackman, Arlene Duncan, Kaya Joubert Johnson, Tom Pickett, Chris Sams.

Produced by Acting Up Stage Company in Association with Obsidian Theatre Company.

It plays to February 9, 2014.

The dynamic musical duo of Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) first created this bitter-sweet musical in 1990. It now marks the first production of the beginning of the 10th season of Acting Up Stage Company, a fitting pairing.

Ahrens and Flaherty have taken a Caribbean folk tale, with all its mystery and rigid mind-set, and created a contemporary story of the power of love, class distinctions, religious constraints, and a blinkered view of life.

The story of Once on this Island takes place on an unnamed Caribbean island in which there is a great divide between the dark skinned poor peasants and the lighter skinned rich folks. The rigid thinking is that both classes don’t mix and marriage between the groups is out of the question. The gods control everything and under no circumstances do you cross them.

Into this world comes Ti Moune, an orphan who is taken in and raised by Mama Euralie and Tonton, hard-working dark-skinned peasants. Ti Moune is a sweet free spirit. One day there is a huge storm (the gods are angry about something) and a car crash. Ti Moune finds a young man named Daniel badly injured and trapped in his mangled car. Daniel is light-skinned and wealthy. The peasants don’t want any part of him because of course he’s a different class. They want to take him back to his people. Ti Moune objects and says that since she found him she should be responsible for saving him. And she does. She tends him for days until he recovers enough to be returned to his family.

She has fallen in love with him and sets out for the city to continue to take care of him. At first Daniel doesn’t recognize her—probably because he was unconscious for most of his stay with the peasants. But he senses her goodness and they bond and fall in love. There is a minor glitch—Daniel is engaged and hasn’t managed to tell Ti Moune. While it doesn’t end well for Ti Moune, it does end properly for a folk-tale musical.

I like the piece a lot. Ahrens and Flaherty draw you into that laid back yet vibrant world with their swaying music and lyrics. I love how the rigidity of social conventions in that world of people of the same culture but different degree of blackness keeps them determinedly separate. At times I thought that even the story of Romeo and Juliet would not work in that culture, and in a way it doesn’t.

There is much to like in this production as well. Michael Gianfrancesco’s simple set of green backdrop and floor covering suggests the lushness of the island and the water that surrounds it. Alex Amini’s costumes create the divide between peasant and city folks.

The cast, for the most part, are strong and are made up of some of the city’s finest musical theatre artists. As Ti Moune, Jewelle Blackman has that simplicity of a truly good young woman; who would give up her life to save another’s. She sings with a strong, commanding voice and has captured Ti Moune’s innocence and determination.

As Euralie, Arlene Duncan is a force to be reckoned with. There is love and fierceness in this performance. And of course she sings like a dream. As Tonton, Tom Pickett has that pride of a man who knows the world and his own worth in it.

Marc Kimelman’s choreography is lively and again captures the sway and sashay of a hip-swinging people.

I do have a problem with Nigel Shawn Williams’ direction. At times the placement of important scenes, for example Ti Moune tending a sick Daniel, is placed upstage and to the right, with a battalion of dancers dancing in front of then, obstructing our view. The focal point is Ti Moune tending Daniel, not the dancers obstructing everything in their wake. Too often important scenes are obscured in this way. At one point Ti Moune is staged to sing a lovely love song not do Daniel, which would make sense, but to the audience, which makes no sense. That happened too often. Lovely piece of theatre though.

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