Once on This Island

Local Arts Reviews

Once on This Island: Not Quite Happily Ever After

Mary Moody Northen Theatre,

through March 3

Running Time: 1 hr, 40 min

Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? Once upon a time ... on this island. With book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Steven Flaherty, the musical Once on This Island certainly has the elements of a fairy tale: supernatural beings, nature reflecting human concerns, a journey, and a love story between a poor girl and a rich man. Most importantly, and most fortunately, it corners the market in something every musical needs: music! In this case, Caribbean-influenced music, typically mixing upbeat numbers with ballads. If there are two pages of spoken lines in this production, I'd be surprised. Like many contemporary musicals, almost the entire show is sung.

While in a thematic sense, the story is about dealing with grief, plot-wise it's about an island on which the poor are ruled by the rich, and all are overseen and manipulated by a set of omnipotent gods. One night a terrible storm comes, and the gods, in their wisdom, save from the flood a young girl named Ti Moune. She's adopted by a loving couple and grows into a beautiful young girl who believes she is destined for something special. The gods arrange just that when, one day, a wealthy "grand homme" crashes his car in her tiny village. Ti Moune nurses him back to health and falls in love with him, and the story becomes a parable about the possibility of love conquering death -- or, even more specifically, love conquering money.

Director and choreographer Kevin Archambault made one decision that almost totally paid off: He cast Emily Vanover and Mollie Milliet as, respectively, the younger and older Ti Moune. Vanover is radiant as the little girl the gods save from the storm, and she makes performing in an all-singing, all-dancing musical seem like the most natural thing in the world. Milliet almost matches Vanover smile for smile in youthful exuberance, belting out her songs in a voice filled with such energy and life, it's amazing that such power and strength can come from such a petite lady (although too often I found myself wishing that Archambault had asked her to stop making so many faces and, when appropriate, simply listen).

Possibly because the music in the show never ends, Archambault keeps the large cast moving, and it is here that the production most often falls flat. Archambault should be given credit for choosing the show in the first place, which was originally written with African-American performers in mind, and more than doubling the size of the original cast to allow a maximum number of St. Edward's University students to participate. But with pros come cons, and often Archambault can't quite get his large cast to execute his detailed, energetic choreography effectively. The success of Archambault's choreography increases incrementally the freer the form -- the more primitive dance numbers are always the most effective, but too often the large chorus looks like it's only going through the motions.

Simplicity would have served Archambault better in his technical decisions as well. Some of the tech is marvelous -- the storm at the beginning is particularly memorable -- but Gary van der Wege's set design offers four interesting and detailed stations for the gods of Earth, Love, Water, and Death, while much of the rest of the design seems almost perfunctory in execution. Zach Murphy's lights are colorful, multipatterned, and mood-appropriate, but they change so radically and so frequently that they sometimes distract from what's happening onstage. However, as I watched the production bouncing and swirling around, I often caught myself wondering what Archambault could do with a large cast of more experienced, committed performers. I, for one, hope someone provides him that opportunity in the near future.

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Once on This Island, Lynn Ahrens, Steven Flaherty, St. Edward's University, Kevin Archambault, Emily Vanover, Mollie Milliet, Gary van der Wege, Zach Murphy

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