Rich staging helps make `Island' magic

Theater Review

December 22, 2005|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Once on This Island depicts a world defined by dichotomies -- life and death, love and bigotry, peasants and aristocrats, fairy tales and reality.

The Caribbean-set musical also depicts a world overflowing with song, dance and the mythic power of storytelling.

All of these elements are exuberantly -- though at times rather raggedly -- celebrated in director/choreographer Kenneth Lee Roberson's production at Center Stage.

Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist/librettist Lynn Ahrens based this 1990 musical on native Trinidad author Rosa Guy's novel, My Love, My Love, which is, in turn, loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid.

Presented as a story-within-a-story, the central plot is framed as a tale told by villagers to calm a little girl frightened by a storm. The tale concerns an orphaned peasant named Ti Moune who, like Andersen's mermaid, falls in love with a man from a different world -- in this case, a light-skinned aristocrat.

The magic of the musical lies in its economical but thematically rich staging. An ensemble cast of 11 portrays villagers as well as aristocrats, demonstrating how alike the classes truly are. Furthermore, four members of this ensemble portray the gods who orchestrate Ti Moune's fate. Even when they're not wearing emblems of their supernatural status (a bowler for Christopher L. Morgan's god of death; a lacy fan for E. Faye Butler's goddess of love, etc.), the presence of these four actors reminds us of the importance of the deities in the islanders' daily lives.

Combine this with the lilting calypso rhythms of Flaherty's music, and, especially on a cold, winter night, Once on This Island has the potential to be a thoroughly delightful theatrical trip to the Caribbean. And, in many respects, Center Stage's production lives up to that potential.

Because the musical is based in simple storytelling, it eschews grandiose special effects for smaller, lovely ones. For example, there's the moment near the end of "One Small Girl" when Heaven Leigh Horton (who alternates in the role of Little Ti Moune with Miah Patterson) dashes through a doorway, and her grown-up self, (Trisha Jeffrey, an actress with an effervescent presence and singing voice), returns in her place.

Or, there's the storm in the song "Rain," in which peasants hold aqua-colored umbrellas trailing sparkly streamers to represent the downpour (an effect also used in the original New York production). Or, the lush flora and fauna depicted by actors whose swirling, colorful capes (the vibrant costumes are by Emilio Sosa) suggest a tropical garden in "Mama Will Provide."

The performances also have their share of splendor, especially those of Jeffrey's Ti Moune, whose love for aristocratic Daniel (J.D. Goldblatt) is irrepressible, even when confronted by Papa Ge -- the god of death, magnificently portrayed by lithe, sinewy Morgan. And, the six-member band, under the musical direction of Darryl G. Ivey, supplies spirited accompaniment, from the powerful percussive beat to the sweet bird-like strains of the woodwinds.

In too many cases, however, the actors' thick patois and fast delivery render some of the words unintelligible. And although most of Roberson's movement and choreography enhance the storytelling, his direction of the scene depicting Ti Moune's ultimate fate speeds by so quickly, the resolution isn't entirely clear.

Ahrens and Flaherty wrote Once on This Island before their two best-known musicals, Ragtime and Seussical. But this early work contains thematic -- and occasional melodic -- hints of those subsequent pieces, whether the racial tensions in Ragtime or the childhood wonder in Seussical. "Our lives become the stories that we weave," the cast of Once on the This Island sings in the rousing final number, "Why We Tell the Story." The story that's woven on stage is a beautiful one, even when the handiwork at Center Stage is a little less than meticulous.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

Once on This Island continues at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., through Jan. 22. $10-$65. Call 410-332-0033 or visit center stage.org.

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