Once On This Island is a warm-hearted, but wooly-headed bit of faux folklore from the American musical-writing team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
The Caribbean-set one-act musical takes place on an unnamed island with a colonial history suspiciously similar to that of Haiti – only it’s described as the “jewel of the Antilles”, instead of “the pearl of the Antilles”. The French have long departed, leaving behind two divided groups – a lighter-skinned ruling class known as the Beauxhommes; and the dark-skinned peasants who polish their shoes and their cars.
Two storms conjured by a quartet of Gods bring together a clash of classes. After the first, Ti Moune (an adorable Kaya Joubert Johnson) is discovered up a tree by a poor, childless peasant couple who, like Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert of the Caribbean, bring her home and raise her despite not being able to afford a girl.
In the second storm a decade later, Daniel (Chris Sams), son of a Beauxhomme, crashes his car and is discovered by Ti Moune, now a young woman and played by Jewelle Blackman.
Naturally, Ti Moune falls in love with the unconscious Daniel – and, after he’s taken back to his estate by his family, she breaks all the taboos of her island by making her way to his bedside to nurse him to health.
Much of Once On This Island – being produced by the musical-theatre company Acting Up Stage Company in association with black-theatre company Obsidian – is charming. As Ti Moune’s kind, adoptive parents, Arlene Duncan is radiance itself with a glowing voice to match, while there’s something about Tom Pickett that makes you smile whenever he’s on stage.
Of the four deities, Daren A. Herbert, an actor of absolute commitment, strikes an excellent balance between frightening and funny as the demon of death, while Alana Hibbert is pure joy as the goddess of love.
But Blackman, as the leading lady, is not quite the free and wild creature of the earth and water described in the text; and her voice, on opening night anyway, sounded painful in the higher notes.
Once On This Island not only tells the story of Ti Moune, but also tells the telling of the story of Ti Moune. There’s a song called Some Say, where alternative versions of the story we’re watching are mooted; and the musical ends on a wanting-to-have-it-both-ways note with the cast dancing about happily and singing: “Life is why we tell the story; faith is why we tell the story; you are why we tell the story.”
There’s a certain presumptuousness to this that doesn’t sit well – and director Nigel Shawn Williams’s production’s chief problem is that it never makes entirely clear who this “we” is. Is it the group of black Canadian actors involved in this production, or the imaginary peasants of a semi-fictional island? There’s a nebulousness and a past-tense feel to the show that keeps it at a remove.
Of course, Once On This Island doesn’t actually tell a timeless island myth; it’s a 1990 American musical based on a 1985 novel by Rosa Guy that took its main inspirations from a pair of European tales, The Little Mermaid and Romeo and Juliet. The show’s final exhortation that Ti Moune’s story will teach us how “to forgive” then is certainly rich.
I don’t want to be overly harsh: Once On This Island is a pleasant show that young audiences will enjoy in particular. But after penning this show, Ahrens and Flaherty went on to write Ragtime and Seussical – two musicals that would separate their interests in race and politics, and in fairy tales into different shows. That is to say, they learned from their mistakes.
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