‘Once On This Island’ has audiences dancing 

click to enlarge Once On This Island
  • Clockwise, from bottom right: Salisha Thomas, Omari Tau, Max Kumangai, Safiya Fredericks and Adrienne Muller sing up a storm in TheatreWorks’ “Once On This Island.”
“We tell the story,” sings an ebullient chorus at the end of “Once On This Island,” the Olivier Award-winning musical fable by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. That story, of star-crossed lovers, is in fact rather slight.

Based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel “My Love, My Love,” a tropical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” it relates — through narration, song, dance and dialogue — the journey of an innocent orphan girl on an island in the French Antilles who falls for an aristocrat who is intractably betrothed to a girl from his own social class.

Gossamer-thin as the story is, it has the charm of a beloved fairy tale. And the musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1990, is beautifully rendered in TheatreWorks’ new production (TheatreWorks originally staged it in 1993), with intense and energetic performances, lovely voices and a live orchestra under musical director William Liberatore.

Especially excellent is the choreography by Gerry McIntyre, carried out by a sublimely graceful cast. The occasional use of masks is an extra bonus.

Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Flaherty (composer) lightened up the source material, fashioning a more upbeat, and appropriately mythical, ending.

Indeed, as directed by Robert Kelley, the production is a sunny panorama of smiling faces, irresistibly undulating rhythms, barefoot but happy villagers and snarky gods in a colorful array of casual clothing (costumes by Cathleen Edwards), all framed by sunsets, cutout palm trees and suggestions of tall, corrugated tin huts. The effectively simple, storybook-like set is by Joe Ragey.

I’d have liked more of the dark moments, during which the demon of death (a thrillingly powerful Max Kumangai) strikes a devil’s deal with the young heroine, Ti Moune (a sweet-voiced, impassioned Salisha Thomas).

After all, even though this is a magical, feel-good tale, we know that poor people in Haiti, the presumed locale of the play, have a hard life. The ferocious storm that starts the action, and provides a framing device for the story, is just right.

Among Flaherty’s 20 songs packed into the 90-minute production, the buoyant numbers, with their insistent, quasi-calypso beat, are more appealing than the mostly forgettable ballads.

Particularly so is “Mama Will Provide” sung by Safiya Fredericks as an endearingly tough earth goddess. It’s a highlight of the show.

And so is a beautifully staged high-society party scene in which ballroom dancing suddenly morphs into native rhythms that might make you want to jump up and dance in the aisles.


Once On This Island

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 30

Tickets: $19 to $73

Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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