I've wanted to see a worthwhile production of Once on This Island for more than a decade. I've long suspected that Stephen Flaherty's and Lynn Ahrens' musicalized Little Mermaid had great potential, that its folksy tale and melodic score could be elevated by the right cast and conductor. But now -- after watching Black Theatre Troupe's lackluster production at the Herberger Theater Center -- I've given up. In fact, I have -- after seeing three different dreary productions of this mystifying musical -- begun to wonder if I haven't presumed too much about this show's potential. Maybe no one can make these songs and this setting reach past the footlights. The folks over at the Herberger certainly haven't.
My reference to The Little Mermaid wasn't a swipe; Ahrens' book owes a debt to Hans Christian Andersen's tale of a mythical girl who falls in love with a mortal. In this case, it's racial differences, not the sea, that come between the lovers. Set in the French Antilles, Once on This Island is adapted from a novel by Rosa Guy about a black peasant girl who falls for a mulatto aristocrat. The gods are unkind to the couple and are delighted when classism prevails: The nobleman dumps the island girl, who dies and is reincarnated as a tree.
A cardboard-and-tempura tree, that is. Thom Gilseth's island is overgrown with cartoony foliage and piled with Disneyesque set pieces meant to evoke a child's storybook. Michael J. Eddy's unsubtle lighting design splashes these flats with unflattering browns and oranges that make them appear all the more one-dimensional.
Director/choreographer Michael Barnard, who until recently staged shows for Disneyland, strains to meet the once-upon-a-time style of Island without succumbing to theme-park trickery. He succeeds about half the time, as with the high-stepping ensemble opener "We Dance." But Barnard's cast of mostly non-dancers can't keep up with his complicated choreography, and too many numbers are sung directly to the audience, with the cast lined up before us, their arms outstretched as if for a curtain call. The result is a stage full of performers who appear to be pleading for applause.
Occasionally they deserve an ovation. Evelyn Brown-Gray belts a rousing "Mama Will Provide," her performance punctuated with joyous wiggling and a roaring, Aretha-esque coda. And Keittra Colombel as the island girl Ti Moune is consistently delightful, with a shy, arresting smile and a pleasant singing voice that always retains its odd accent. When she clasps the hand of her lover and sings her half of "Forever Yours," you hear both her sweet infatuation and the hopelessness of her romance.
Timothy Slope's costume design is surprisingly opulent for what otherwise looks like a low-budget show. His islanders are garbed in vibrant skirts and headrags, and a simple breakaway dress for Ti Moune allows her to both loll on the beach and attend a fancy dress ball. That ball, packed with stunning revelers in bright bustles and French masquerade garb, is the show's visual highlight, with get-ups that trump Slope's outrageous earlier costumes for Death (who's clad in a monstrous black space suit) and Love (gotten up in a voluminous gown with heart-shaped sleeves).
Flaherty and Ahrens followed Once on This Island, which was a hit on Broadway in 1990, with hugely successful translations of My Favorite Year and Ragtime, and last year's Seussical: The Musical. There's enough of the musical integrity of those later shows in Once on This Island to suggest that this, too, could be a great musical. But there's not enough of anything in Black Theatre Troupe's production to convince me of that.
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