Dallas — The national tour of Broadway’s 2017 revival of Once on This Island, originally produced in 1990, is now onstage at the Winspear Opera House in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series. Through this story of the ill-fated love of a dark-skinned peasant girl for a Creole boy, is exposed the corrosive effects of colorism among the descendants of slaves. Set on an island in the Antilles, Rosa Guy’s novel, My Love, My Love, (The Peasant Girl) — inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid — is revived through the musical creation of Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). Guy was very intentional about bringing these stories out of the shadows. But stories resonate in different ways for different people. The connections can be surprisingly unexpected.
Director of the Broadway revival and tour, native-borne Texan, Michael Arden, connects in a deeply emotional way with this show through his personal experience of having been saved, adopted and raised with unconditional love by his grandparents. He too, like the peasant girl Ti Moune in Once on This Island, was found stuck without anyone to care for him. For him, this show is an act of love and an opportunity to pay it forward through opening opportunities for new talent to enter the Broadway arena.
Courtnee Carter (the adult Ti Moune) spoke with TheaterJones about how her knowledge of the devastation resulting from hurricanes helps her to understand what the peasants experienced on Ti Moune’s tiny island.
Once On This Island is a fable about an orphaned girl, Ti Moune (little Ti Moune was played by Mimi Crossland on Tuesday) who is rescued during a devastating storm and placed in a tree by the gods — Asaka: Mother of Earth (Kyle Ramar Freeman), Agwe: God of Water (Jahmaul Bakare), Erzulie: Goddess of Love (Cassondra James), and Papa Ge: Demon of Death (Tamyra Gray, an American Idol alum).
She is found and adopted by peasants Mama Euralie (Danielle Lee Greaves) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) who raise her as their own. Adult Ti Moune, believing she was saved for a reason, prays to the gods for the answer why. Her prayers set in motion a sequence of events designed by the gods to teach her about love, healing, and death. The catalyst to her lesson is a handsome young Creole man, Daniel Beauxhomme (Tyler Hardwick).
Ti Moune nurses him following a car crash which nearly takes his life. It is her belief that without her, he will die. But being with him brings her face to face with the prejudice of colorism coupled with class, something Daniel’s father, Armand (George L. Brown II), is determined to protect. He cautions Daniel about the distinctions between the girl you love and the woman you marry. Daniel does not tell Ti Moune that he has been promised since childhood to Andrea (Brianna Brooks).
Providing the details and context are storytellers as narrators, McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Michael Ivan Carrier, Jay Donnell, Alex Joseph Grayson, Phyre Hawkins, Savy Jackson, Tatiana Lofton and Robert Zelaya.
It is so hard to sit still through this music with its African infused island rhythms and sounds. Camille A. Brown’s choreography is key to that swaying while in seat feeling. This is scored for a small ensemble that is onstage as part of the island setting (designed by Dane Laffrey), very much like what one might see in some Caribbean beach bars. Much like the Tony-winning Broadway revival, which was presented in the round, there is onstage seating at the Winspear, with about 60 seats on risers on one corner of the set. There is sand, too, but unlike Broadway, no live animals.
For this reviewer, there are three memorable scenes.
First is “And the Gods Heard Her Prayer” in which the gods answer Ti Moune’s prayers. It is evenly solid with singing, acting and movement by Freeman (Asaka), Bakare (Agwe), Gray (Papa Ge) and James (Erzulie). The lead vocalist is Bakare, his voice bellowing into “Rain” which climaxes with the car crash is just gorgeous.
Second is the transition into La Tristes Histoire des Beauxhommes which utilizes shadow dance to explain the lineage of the Creole family very effectively.
Third, the scene which reprises “Forever Yours” with Carter (Ti Moune), Gray (Papa Ge), and James (Erzulie) is fabulous. The storytellers encircling Ti Moune with taunts and Carter’s physical response to the humiliation create one of the deepest emotional moments in the story. Papa Ge is arguably the most dynamic character which Gray pulls forth with just the right amount of intimidation.
This is a strong, cohesive cast with no weak performances. However, without Ti Moune, there is no story. Carter has a big voice, sustaining her long notes without wavering. She moves well also which is as important in communicating a story told largely through storytellers. Her physicality, her gestures, are essential to demonstrating her character’s emotions. A gracefulness is required of Ti Moune and Carter has that.
It will always be unfair, sharing the stage with pint-sized adorableness with two swirled and pinned ponytails and Mary Jane shoes (Mimi as little Ti Moune). How can one possibly compete with that and win?
Finally, as important as the scenic design are the costumes. Clint Ramos’ vision really supports the actors’ supernatural characters. The costumes not only reflect the culture but are also efficient to the storytelling format, capable of moving whether wet or dry, whether standing or climbing ladders, and they suggest an otherworldliness. Great costumes, and hair/wig/make-up design (Cookie Jordan).
Once on This Island is fun but not frivolous, and seriously messaged without being preachy. There is a tragedy but there is also hopefulness. After but a few minutes in it is easy to understand the show’s popularity and sustainability. It might seem an odd pick for a holiday timeslot, but anything that leaves the audience feeling better than when it entered the space is right for a season of good will and mirth.