An Incredible and Evocative ‘Once on this Island’

There is certainly something to be commended in Slow Burn Theatre Company’s selection of Once On This Island for this slot in its season, a musical that, despite being written by a white composer and lyricist, calls for an entirely non-white cast. 

And lest you think I’m being somehow off-key by starting off this review with this loaded pondering, you should note that the matter was top of mind not because of some personal preoccupation but because racism is actually one of the major themes of the story, the defining obstacle that keeps its star crossed lovers apart. 

Or, to be more precise, not racism but colorism, which refers to the ways in which people with lighter skin are afforded higher social status than those with darker skin even when they are nominally the same race.

Once On This Island is, theoretically, set in the French Antilles, but it comes across more like it takes place in another world entirely, a dreamy fantasy-scape populated by Gods and aristocracy, in which life infused by the mystical is an unquestioned given. I couldn’t quite figure out the time period the show was going for either, since if not for a singular but critical plot point involving a car I would have put forth a time before the car’s invention. 

The haunting story follows a young orphan girl named Ti Moune as she is spared by these gods from a catastrophic flood that destroyed the rest of her village. She is adopted by a loving elderly couple, Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie, and wonders over her destiny until another godly storm leads to her meeting with Daniel, a boy who hails from the privileged community of lighter-skinned islanders who consider themselves superior to the darker skinned Ti Moune and her people. He is gravely injured after having been hit by a car, and, despite her family’s protests, Ti Moune takes it upon herself to nurse him back to health, falling instantly in love with him. 

I won’t spoil you anymore of the story, except to say that it is based on a book that is itself based on the original Hans Christian Anderson version of the Little Mermaid. The version that’s a good deal sadder than the Disney version we all know and probably tolerate, if not much more feminist, which is the one major complaint I can kind of claim to have with this overall stunning story and production. 

But, in the meantime: theatre companies who do not cast diverse performers in their shows can now never again claim it is because they cannot find any with the suitable skill set, unless literally the entire ensemble of this show is already booked. A stage full of triple threat talents create the soul of this story with their emotional and physical commitment to their roles, though it’s probably Brinie Wallace’s Ti Moune who might be most accurately described as its heart. 

As the island’s gods, Nate Promkul, Kareema Khouri, Lillie Thomas, and Elijah Word get some of the show’s most memorable vocal showcases, though Word probably has the chance to create the strongest character of the four as the menacing God of Death.

They, and the rest of the sparkling cast, give incredible voice to the show’s score, an evocative songscape that beautifully conveys the fable’s sweeping emotions. The production’s visuals rise to match, as transporting scenery designed by Cliff Price sets the mood for the exotic story. 

Luscious costumes by Lenora Nikitin incorporate both modern and traditional wardrobe, fanciful ballgowns joined by jerseys and blue jeans to create an eclectic mix. And choreography by Jerel Brown also left an impression, particularly in a sequence where Ti Moune’s joyous dancing enchants even the snobbish high society ladies she meets in Daniel’s court. 

It’s hard to point out any aspect of this production that wasn’t excellent, which leaves me with my one aforementioned bone to pick: the story itself. Not the way that the story is told either in the poetic script or in the theatrical techniques used to bring it to life, but in the actual narrative that these two things work to convey. 

Which, basically, is a narrative in which a woman not only decides to give her whole self over to a man who shows no true regard for her but a narrative in which she is explicitly glorified for it in the name of redemption for her despair. 

So, just, for argument’s sake, before we go forth, can we at least stop to notice that something about holding up a naive self-sacrificial woman as some kind of ideal instead of being enraged at the forces that oppressed her is at least a little messed up? 

But, that having been said, it would be a shame for anyone to miss this rendition of Once On This Island, which will be playing at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater until this February 20th. After all, the ability to love fearlessly and boundlessly is something that I believe can rightly be celebrated, all else aside, and in this aspect, Once On this Island succeeds majestically.

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *