Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 1999
"Once on this Island" is probably the perfect family musical. It is brief (85 minutes), uplifting, and tuneful. And Weston Playhouse is giving it a nifty production that is simultaneously simple and full of surprises.
Since its off-Broadway debut in 1990 "Once on this Island" has rapidly become a favorite in the American musical theatre canon. Once it moved to Broadway it was favored with eight Tony nominations and its creators - Lynn Ahrens, book and lyrics; Stephen Flaherty, composer - have gone on to pen "Ragtime" which took the Tony for Best New Musical in 1998, as well as the musicals "My Favorite Year" and "Lucky Stiff".
Set on an island in the French Antilles, "Once on this Island" tells the story of the orphan girl Ti Moune (pronounced "Tea Moon", who falls in love with a mulato man of the French upper class. He loves her, but, of course, marries one of his own kind. It is a story of Caribbean apartheid with a tragic ending - Ti Moune (Carla Hargrove) has made a bargain with Papa Ge, the Voo Doo Demon of Death (Vinson German) to exchange her life for that of her beloved Daniel (Caesar Samayoa) - yet Ahrens and Flaherty have turned it into a celebration of life and love, rather than a tale of death and prejudice.
The set by Bryan Johnson, the lighting by Diane Ferry Williams, and the costumes by Alan Yeong provide the perfect Caribbean flavor and feel without getting in the way of the vigorous action and dancing created by Jim Weaver. "Once on this Island" is almost completely sung through - more of a Calypso operetta than a standard book musical - and so action and dance become one. I especially enjoyed the effects - costume, dance and lighting for the number "Rain". Johnson's round raked stage with a concentric revolve provides good sightlines and is fascinating to see in action.
Weston has assembled a talented ensemble of ten adult actors and one child - a little girl (Arantha Farrow) who plays the young Ti Moune and is also the person to whom Ti Moune's story is told in song and dance.
Hargrove is a stand-out as the grown Ti Moune. This woman can sing! And dance! She carries the show effortlessly on her slender shoulders. Samayoa pales in comparison as the bland and narrow-minded Daniel. Laiona Weaver and Dwayne Grayman turn in fine performances as Ti Moune's adoptive parents.
German, Sonya Rogers, Reggie Bruce and Lisa Boggs play the Voo Doo gods of death, earth, water, and love. Of the four German is the stand-out and Rogers gets the better songs to sing (and we all know that everybody loves Mother Nature!) Voo Doo is the nature-based religion of the non-white Caribbean peoples, and it is represented properly here as a normal way of life, rather than some exotic and unnatural cult.
Weston is air-conditioned this season. The day I attended the temperature outside was in the 90's and I was very glad of this new addition to the theatre's equipment. The playhouse is now beautiful, comodious, and a comfortable temperature. With a great show in the stage, the spectacular Vermont scenery en route, the beauty of the village of Weston, and the Vermont Country Store just across the green, I can't think of a better place to spend your theatre dollars.
"Once on this Island" runs through July 3 at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, VT. The show runs 85 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 802-824-5288 or visit the Weston Playhouse website http://www.westplay.com for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999