Farmer's Branch — Most descriptions of Once on This Island focus on its engaging story, wonderful characters, energizing music, and colorful scenic elements. All are true about this musical crafted by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). The original Broadway production opened in 1990 followed by successful international productions in Europe and the United Kingdom. In 2018, the revival, which opened on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre in 2017, won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
Rosa Guy’s book upon which the musical is based, My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, sets the story in the French Antilles archipelago (Saint Maarten, St-Barthélemy, Guadeloupe and Martinique) in the Caribbean Sea. One could say it is an ill-fated love story between a boy and a girl from different classes, but that would be misleading. Both Guy’s book and the musical tell the story about the love of a girl for a boy whose social class was different specifically because of the color of his skin. His family name, Beauxhomme translates from the Creole French to ‘handsome man’. Ti Moune, a modification of petit-monde translates as ‘little one’. Once on This Island is one of the few musicals to tackle in an unvarnished way the reality of in-group colorism among the descendants of slaves.
The Firehouse Theatre has mounted a bold production of this musical under the direction of Marilyn Setu (with the assistance of Mark Tam Quach), the musical direction of Cherish Love Robinson, and choreography of Christian O’Neill Houston. Scenic designer Wendy Rene’e Searcy has managed to create a colorful tropical environment which accommodates dancers, musicians, dancers-as-a-car, and a tree.
This is a fable about an orphaned girl, Ti Moune (little Ti Moune, Alexis Muturi) who is rescued during a storm and placed in a tree by the gods—Asaka: Mother of Earth (Jason Solis), Agwe: God of Water (Sadat Hossein), Erzulie: Goddess of Love (Kayla Jackson), and Papa Ge: Demon of Death (Colby Calhoun). Peasants Mama Euralie (Elizabeth Coleman) and Tonton Julian (Anthony Washington) care for her as their own, raising her into womanhood. Adult Ti Moune (Ashley Ragsdale) prays to the gods for an understanding why she was saved. The gods set a scenario for her which will explain by offering her a choice between love and healing, and death. To advance this story, they send her way a handsome young man, Daniel Beauxhomme (Jonah Monroe).
While driving his car during a storm, he crashes. While caring for him during his period of unconsciousness, Ti Moune falls in love. Daniel is very ill and the god Papa Ge comes for him. Ti Moune begs Papa Ge for Daniel’s life, promising him her life in exchange for Daniel’s if he will save the young man. Papa Ge accepts, the deal is made. Upon learning what has happened to his son, Daniel’s father Armand (Selmore Haines III) brings him back home. Believing that without her Daniel will die, Ti Moune begs her parents to let her go to him. They caution her that she will never be accepted in his world because she is dark skinned. Determined and defying all advice to the contrary, she follows him anyway. She could not have known that Daniel has been promised to Andrea (Chelsea Bridgman) since childhood.
Houston’s choreography is stylistically accurate and well-executed by the storytellers Branden A. Bailey, Devynn Becerra, Natassia Diggs, Gen Donnell, Tianta Harrison, Jori Jackson, Nicholas Hill, and André Williams. Houston’s best piece is danced by Ragsdale during the second act.
Young Ti Moune youthful freshness implores one to believe everything she sees and imagines. Ragsdale brings the character into focus, creating some very nice moments as Ti Moune. She makes smartly nuanced choices during her songs which highlight her dramatic strength.
Calhoun as Papa Ge looks as fabulous as he sounds, thanks to the costuming of Jessica Layman. Not to be visually outdone is Solis as Asaka. Hearing Elizabeth Coleman sing makes one wish Mama Euralie had more solos.
Providing the musical direction is a full job, assuming the additional responsibility of sound designer is a lot. In this case, sound design would have been better handled by another person. When actors who are amplified feel the need to push to be heard above the band, there’s a problem. Hopefully a sonic balance will be quickly achieved.
The Firehouse Theatre is fearless in its musical selection. That’s a potentially calamitous risk but when it works, odds are everyone will leave a little happier than they were when they arrived.