WASHINGTON — Washington--Here's what passes for special effects in "Once on This Island": Rain is represented by cast members carrying umbrellas dripping with dark, glittering streamers; a Mercedes is represented by an actor gliding across the stage holding a flashlight in each hand; and a child swimming in a storm is represented by a young actress miming swimming motions while being held horizontally aloft by the rest of cast.
In other words, this small-scale musical, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, is low on glitz, but it's high on the more essential components of theater -- storytelling, creativity and the sheer exuberance of live performance.
One of the show's loveliest qualities is that, as directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, its style is ideally suited to its story -- an adaptation of Rosa Guy's novel, "My Love, My
Love," which is, in turn, a West Indian version of the Hans $H Christian Andersen fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid." This 90-minute, intermissionless musical -- with Caribbean-flavored music by Stephen Flaherty and a libretto by Lynn Ahrens -- is as simple and joyful as a child's fairy tale or an island legend.
Opening with a flashing, crashing tropical storm, the show takes the form of a story told by a group of island peasants to allay the fears of a small child. The story also includes its share of storms, one of which causes an automobile accident injuring an aristocratic young man from the other side of the island. The boy is rescued by a peasant girl named Ti Moune who nurses him and falls in love with him, oblivious to the class differences between them. When Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, comes to claim the boy, Ti Moune trades her soul for his.
Part of the show's charm is that the 11 cast members play multiple roles -- an effective device not only because of its economy theatrically, but also because of the way it works thematically. For example, casting the same actors as peasants and aristocrats points up the ludicrousness of the social divisions separating them. And, since four of the peasants also portray island gods, it suggests the gods are always with Ti Moune, looking out for her.
Although Vanita Harbour, who plays Ti Moune, never quite captures the girl's joyous spirit -- either in her dancing or her singing, which has a pop quality -- she does convey the character's childlike wonder, which is basic to the tone of the show. All of the gods come across as larger-than-life, yet accessible presences, particularly Baltimore native James Stovall as Agwe, God of Water; Carol Dennis, who, as Asaka, Mother of the Earth, belts out a rousing "Mama Will Provide"; and Gerry McIntyre, who makes a proud, grinning Demon of Death.
Librettist Ahrens ends "Once on This Island" on a more hopeful note than the Rosa Guy novel that inspired it, but the ending is true to the spirit of the musical -- a Caribbean delight as infectious as its calypso rhythms.
"Once on This Island" continues at the Kennedy Center in Washington through July 19. Call (202) 467-4600.