‘Once on This Island’ showing its age in lackluster road show
The touring production, likely through circumstances beyond producers’ control, seems to be missing some of the magic it conjured on Broadway.
Once upon a time — 1990 to be exact — the musical-theater writers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty made their Broadway debut with “Once on This Island,” a Caribbean-set fable with hints of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Once upon a more recent time — 2017 —“Once on This Island” was given a Broadway revival, with director Michael Arden’s much-praised production going on to win the 2018 Tony Award for best revival of a musical.
That revival provides the basis for the touring production that can currently be seen in a two-week stand at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. The tour, likely through circumstances beyond producers’ control, seems to be missing some of the magic it conjured on Broadway. But that dialed-down dazzle creates enough space for questions about the story itself to worm their way into your head: What lessons, exactly, is this piece imparting, particularly to girls like protagonist Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter)? What does it have to say, if anything, about colonialism and colorism in its fraught island locale? And why are we returning to it in 2020 — “Once,” perhaps, but why now?
When: Through Feb. 2
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Flaherty and Ahrens’ work is based on “My Love, My Love,” a 1985 novel by the Trinidad-born author Rosa Guy that was itself inspired by “The Little Mermaid” — the darker Andersen original, not the Disney version that hit theaters the year before “Once on This Island” debuted. Here, Ti Moune rescues and subsequently falls in love with a princely young man from another world.
But it isn’t the sea that separates them. Following Guy’s template, Ti Moune and Daniel (Tyler Hardwick) are kept apart by color and class.
Daniel comes from the “grande hommes,” the light-skinned, wealthy and Europeanized side of the island descended from white French colonizers. Ti Moune, orphaned by a vicious storm and raised by the kindly Mama Euralie (Danielle Lee Greaves) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin), is a resident of the dark-skinned peasant community on the island’s other side.
Thanks to intervention from the gods —and more on them in a moment — Daniel crashes his car while speeding through Ti Moune’s neck of the woods. She pulls him from the wreckage and insists on nursing him back to health, though he’s retrieved by his own family before he regains consciousness. Ti Moune then insists on tracking him back to the tony gated hotel compound where he lives, naively confident that her love for a man who’s never seen her face will win the day.
The meddling by the gods — water deity Agwe (Jahmaul Bakare), Earth mother Asaka (Kyle Ramar Freeman), death spirit Papa Ge (“American Idol” alum Tamyra Gray) and love goddess Erzulie (Cassondra James) — provides sometimes capricious propulsion; Ti Moune offers her own soul to Papa Ge to protect Daniel’s, long before Daniel has registered Ti Moune’s existence.
Arden’s 2017 Broadway staging apparently drew much of its power from its immersive nature. The show ran in New York at the Circle in the Square Theatre, whose intimate, in-the-round setup seems to have turbocharged the ambiance. The close quarters allowed for scenic designer Dane Laffrey’s found-object milieu to charm from every angle, the incorporation of sand and water into the stage floor to impress, and the gods to literally enter from above the audience. The intimacy of that in-the-round staging simply isn’t replicable in proscenium-oriented touring venues like the Cadillac Palace, even with a couple dozen ticket holders seated on the stage.
And for all the excitement of Flaherty’s Caribbean-tinged songs — the talented cast and onstage band combine to create powerful sounds, with Freeman’s exultant rendition of “Mama Will Provide” as the show’s celebratory centerpiece — I found my mind wandering to ask why we should be rooting for Ti Moune to connect with deadwood Daniel? That’s no fault of Hardwick, who does what he can to infuse his character with appeal; there’s simply nothing there in the writing (beyond godly fiat) to sell us on Ti Moune’s infatuation.
Ti Moune’s selflessness ultimately gets her expelled from the hotel grounds, and her grief as she watches Daniel marry another transforms her into a tree that, we’re told, will provide shade and shelter for Daniel’s children. It’s a rushed and ultimately dissatisfying denouement, with the lovelorn innocent punished while the rich and powerful continue to be rich and powerful. At least the fable allows us to blame it on the whims of gods.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.