Once on this Island
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
May 7, 2006
For some time, I’ve wanted to check out Gallery Players, Brooklyn’s small but enduring 99-seat black box theatre, and I finally found a fine opportunity during its current run of Lynn Ahrens's and Stephen Flaherty’s musical Once on This Island, the jubilant celebration of Caribbean culture.
Based on "The Little Mermaid," the story hinges on the Faustian agreement of a peasant girl, Ti Moune, who restores the broken body of handsome young Daniel, whom she finds dying in a crashed car. Through islander storytellers, we see the couple fall in love, but objections from his wealthy father prevent them from marrying, and her pact with the devil to save Daniel’s life means that, ultimately, she must be sacrificed.
While Once on This Island is a rich combination of storytelling, music, and dance, this rendition misses some of the dramatic notes. There is not a sad moment, not a second of pathos in this two-hour performance. This is a difficult feat given the themes: rich versus poor, a Faustian bargain, and unrequited love. Perhaps Steven Smeltzer, the director, equates family fare with happiness, because there is little plumbing of emotional depth even when the opportunities arise as in the end when the protagonist Ti Moune dies. What Smeltzer does do well is maintain lively pace and beautiful movement among the 19 cast members, making the small stage feel expansive. Steve Przybylski directs the 22 musical numbers with a combo elevated above the stage behind a scrim. And while the music often feels more like a celebration in the park than a dramatic presentation, it is lively and enjoyable. A couple of the storytellers’ numbers stand out: “Mama Will Provide,” an energetic gift from Alicia Christian in the role of Asaka, and “The Human Heart,” sung with poignancy by Monica Quintanilla as Erzulie.
Lisa Nicole Wilkerson depicts the courageous Ti Moune. Her presence is lovely, and she adds dimension to this production in a memorable dance. The depth of her commitment in her dance is what is missing elsewhere in her depiction of Ti Moune—the character’s fears and sorrows are kept in check by the actor’s emotional safety net. Anthony Wayne is a standout as the Mephistophelean figure Papa Ge, and Lincoln Cochran, in the role of Armand, shows the power of a father’s curse on his mulatto son.
Colorful palm trees, vivid flora, and tropical grasses create a fitting mood. Designed by Joseph Trainor, the set manages to both fill the stage and leave plenty of room for the extensive movement of the actors. Niklas J. E. Anderson’s lighting also enhances the set. The costumes are fine, but it seems there is a missed opportunity for fabulous island color. Jill Michael’s puppets interpret the tension of the island beautifully, especially the hybrid mixing class and race—one half of its face painted white and the other painted black.
For all my pickiness, I still enjoyed the musical and its celebratory aspects. Mostly, I was impressed with the ambition and breadth of Once on This Island and I will certainly watch for other productions at Gallery Players.