Once on This Island a Tropical, Topical Smash from Mesa Encore Theatre

Once on This Island a Tropical, Topical Smash from Mesa Encore Theatre
detail of Music Theatre International show logo; original illustration by Kwang Suk

The bummer of civilization, in general, is that the human craving for novelty leads people to cross mountains, rivers, and seas to see what's there and, often, rob, rape, and oppress those they encounter at their destination. However, we have a choice to do otherwise -- to listen to our loving hearts and embrace and appreciate one another and our environments -- and that's what we're reminded of in Once on This Island, the Olivier-winning, calypso-charged 1990 musical currently running at Mesa Encore Theatre.

The story's based on Rosa Guy's 1985 Caribbean-set novel My Love, My Love, or the Peasant Girl, which in turn was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" (not by the 1989 Disney film that Andersen's story also inspired, which film I'm sure shares a West Indian setting, without crediting Ms. Guy in any way, by the merest coincidence, cough).

​This production features the same musical director, Debbie Jo Davey, and much of the same amazing show band as Central Community Theatre's recent Jesus Christ Superstar. Delightfully, it also features some of the same roof-shaking vocalists (who can, it turns out, act after all), gorgeous but subtle costuming by Julie Clement, and choreography from Kristen Taylor that constitutes a spectacular all by itself and is stunningly executed by the multitalented ensemble.

And now, for the benefit of theatergoers everywhere, I need to go all "Dear Curtains" for a minute or two.

Dear Curtains:
I'm sitting in the second row, and I can't hear the board president's curtain speech. I just wanted to say that; I wasn't planning on doing anything about it or anything.
Perfectly Lovely Old Person

Dear PLOP:
Hie thee to the lobby (or flag down one of the numerous and helpful volunteer ushers) and ask for an assisted listening device, immediately and for the rest of your life, which I hope is long and pleasant.

Dear Curtains:
I just watched a beautiful, moving story set in an unspecified island society in which the gods control the earth, sea, people's love lives, and the time and manner of their deaths. These gods also walk the planet, observe everything that occurs, and sing fabulous solos that contain more information on the culture's cosmology.
I was able to follow and enjoy all of this, but when I observed one possible disposition of the human spirit after death, I totally lost it and made fun of the story's ending all the way to my car. Now I'm afraid I missed the point. Can you help me?
Suspension of Disbelief Only Failed Finale

Yes, you missed the point entirely (hint: It was "love conquers death"), but of course I can help you! Loosen your straps and let that disbelief suspend just a tad more. (You might need a larger cup size. Many theatergoers are wearing the wrong size bra and don't even know it.)

You, SODOFF, as well as Mr. Short Attention Span, who sat behind me and needed to shut the fuck up during the play, might also benefit from focusing on narration (it often explains things that seem contrary to reality) and even reading the director's notes in the program ahead of time (something that's usually not necessary at mainstream Broadway musicals, but hey, if you need it, use it).

You're welcome.

Once on This Island continues through Sunday, June 13, at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street. Tickets are $18 to $23; call 480-644-6500, or order here.

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