Once on This Island
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
June 3, 2012
Once On This Island rounds out Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2011/2012 season. Director Thomas Kail has delightfully re-imagined the lively 1990 Broadway production.
Once On This Island is based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy, which is in turn a loose adaptation of the "Little Mermaid" tale. Here Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty transform the story into a Caribbean celebration of music and dance. A group of storytellers have assembled to calm a young girl who is frightened by a thunderstorm by telling her the magical story of Ti Moune, an orphan peasant girl found in a tree after a storm. Ti Moune is adopted by an older couple, Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie. Ti Moune longs to know why her life has been spared and discovers her true purpose is to save Daniel Beauxhomme, a boy from a rich family, whom she nurses back to life after an accident in a storm. But the gods of the island—Agwe, God of Water; Papa Ge, Demon of Death; Erzulie, Goddess of Love; and Asaka, Mother of The Earth—have other ideas about their respective destinies. The story provides an unusual setting for an interesting examination of class struggle and the power of love over death.
The costumes by Jessica Posner are colorful and fun, easily evoking a sun-filled island and inventively incorporating the fishing nets, ropes and flowers at hand into striking adornments for the island deities. The set by Donyale Werle and lights by Kenneth Posner effectively support the action and fun story theater style. The choreography by Bradley Rapier is energetic and the performers' exuberance, decidedly contagious.
To be sure, director Kail’s greatest triumph is in the assembling of this top-notch cast. Syesha Mercado is breathtaking as Ti Moune and her voice is stunning, particularly in “Waiting for Life.” She also thoroughly captures Ti Moune’s innocence and engaging sweetness. You truly support her quest to win her love’s heart. Kevin R. Free and Kenita R. Miller are utterly endearing as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents. Aurelia Williams as Asaka brings down the house with her number “Mama Will Provide.” Darius de Haas, Alan Mingo and Saycon Sengbloh are also perfect in their dual roles of storyteller/dieties and Adam Jacobs as Ti Moune’s fickle love Daniel is earnest and sympathetic. Last but not least, Courtney Harris is adorable as little Ti Moune. The ensemble works extremely well together and Kail has staged the show with clarity and feeling.
The time flew by and my only complaint was that it was over too soon. Although I was also left with the gnawing feeling that I really would have liked to have known something about the characters of the little girl and the storytellers, who are really nothing more than a vehicle for the telling of the story of Ti Moune, which to me seems a missed opportunity for the shows creators.
But it is the performances in Once On This Island, which truly shine and make it a worthy destination for some light summer entertainment.