Be careful what you wish for. That’s the painful lesson learned by the Little Mermaid, who famously traded her fins for legs and a faithless boyfriend. It’s learned again by Ti Moune (Salisha Thomas), the plucky but doomed heroine of “Once on This Island,” a winning musical with a calypso beat by the “Ragtime” team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who adapted the story from Rosa Guy’s 1985 book “My Love, My Love,” which, in turn, took its inspiration from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a fish-maiden and a prince.
Beginning at Playwright’s Horizons in New York, ”Island” went on to a yearlong Broadway run and eight Tony nominations. Alas, no wins, but in 1994, in London, it scooped up the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. In spite of all this, it is seldom seen and, by many, not even heard of. This is, however, the second outing at TheatreWorks, which staged it in 1993. I saw that production and I couldn’t wait to see it again — although that wait ended up being some 20-plus years.
Set somewhere in the French Antilles, with its hurricanes and sunshine and blue waters lapping up against palm-strewn shores (not to mention the voodoo gods waiting in the wings), the show teaches its lesson about snobbery, racial purity and prejudice gently, with a wink and a song and a dance. And what dancing! Gerry McIntyre, a member of the original 1990 cast, did the choreography and the company does it proud. The ensemble of islanders sing that they “dance to the music of our gods” and, oh boy, do they ever.
This is a society where the dark-skinned peasants on the seaward side of the island and the wealthy, mixed-race descendants of French settlers, who live in the fancy hotels on the other side of the mountains, don’t mix. And that’s the gist. When Ti Moune finds Daniel (Paris Nix), the rich boy, injured on the beach after a car wreck, she nurses him back to relative health and then sends for his relatives to finish the job. But Daniel is not getting better and she is in love so, against the advice of her parents (Dawn L. Troupe and the powerful Berwick Haynes) and with the blessing of a slightly goofy quartet of island gods, she makes the perilous journey to the city. And, for a while, everything is fine. Daniel still spends most of his time in bed — but not because of his injuries.
But aristocrats will be aristocrats and, at a fancy ball in the hotel, the sweet bumpkin Ti Moune is introduced to the elegant grande dame who is ordained by custom and society to be Daniel’s bride. Egged on by Papa Ge (a fabulous Max Kumangai), the demon of Death, she almost kills her lover but cannot, so her own life becomes forfeit. But don’t worry, there is a happy ending — sort of.
Production values are impeccable. It all takes place on Joe Ragey’s storybook set, with wonderful stage effects like whirling tinsel-festooned umbrellas for a rainstorm, (another large umbrella shields the lovers’ bedroom antics from our view), two flashlights in a dancer’s hands for a car and whimsical puppets for frogs and birds. The colorful costumes were designed by Cathleen Edwards, lighting by Pamila Z. Gray and sound by Jeff Mockus. Music director William Liberatore had things well in hand in the pit. TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley has confessed his affection for this show and it is apparent in his direction. I believe the proper word is panache.
In addition to Thomas’ bravura turn as Ti Moune, standouts in the uniformly excellent cast are Haynes as Tonton Julian, Ti Moune’s father, who would risk everything for her happiness; Kumangai as the somehow lovable death demon; and Safiya Fredericks as the powerful Earth Mother. But everybody excels as peasants, aristocrats, vendors, gossips, deities and, most of all, storytellers as they bat the tale back and forth among themselves, dancing along the way.
Great art? Maybe not but, if you want to feel good for an hour and a half, set sail for this “Island.” It has a charm that makes it a worthy port of call.