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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Once on this Island

Once on this Island
A stranger in white
In a car
Going somewhere
Going far. . .
— Beginning of " Waiting for Life"
Once On an Island
Syesha Mercadoy
(Photo: Jerry Dalia)
A little more than twenty years ago the composing team of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) scored their first major success with a musical Once on this Island that they based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy. Their collaborative effort enchanted audiences with a story set on an island in the French Antilles. However, its bittersweet quality and its focus on bigotry, the racial divide between the dark skinned natives and the light-skinned mulatto land owners mutes its ability to be totally enchanting.

While this newly envisioned, beautifully directed, and imaginatively staged production at the Paper Mill Playhouse attempts to carry on the enchantment, it does so with a piercing and shrill insistence that often thwarts the more charming aspects of the story and presumably the intentions of the creative team. For the most part, Iím speaking of the excruciating sound level, which not only distorts many of the fine voices, but also disrupts and damages our willingness to connect with the plight of the musicalís heroine Ti Moune, as played American Idol finalist Syesha Mercado. Mercado is a lovely and multi-talented performer Ė her dancing is sublime — but unless the sound engineers can fix the way that her voice is electronically projected, your only relief will be to bring cotton for your ears.

Once on this Island, unlike that other popular musical fairy tale Once Upon a Mattress, is not a parody. It is a fable and as such requires its audience to watch it with the kind of uncompromised belief one brings to Peter Pan.

The good news is that director Thomas Kail (In the Heights) and choreographer Bradley Rapier have combined their vision plenty of calypso movement and dance including imaginative use of puppets and masks. This manages to keep the quaint story of a poor native girl who becomes hopelessly infatuated with a wealthy mulatto land-owner from being simply a distraction. Although the score and the singing pulses almost continuously throughout the ninety minutes, this production flows with a minimum of convolution and a maximum of high-spirited undulating courtesy of Bradley Rapierís pulsating choreography.

Given that Ahrens and Flaherty have collaborated on a number of acclaimed scores, most notably Ragtime, there are, to my ears, very few among the twenty or so musical numbers that are distinguished beyond their quasi-tropical island-inspired ebullience. It is left to the individual personalities of cast members to produce anything that you could call memorable. Within the whimsically impressionistic settings by Donyale Werle, and in costume designer Jessica Jahnís colorful island-wear, a gifted ensemble enlivens a fable that is calculated to bridge fantasy with reality.

Aside from being undermined by the sound system, Mercado projects a winsome effervescence as the ill-fated, impassioned orphan girl destined to become a folkloric legend among her people. Adam Jacobs sings well but leaves little impression as the aristocratic Daniel, the unattainable love of her life. Aurelia Williams fulfills her role of Asaka, Mother of the Earth with predictable earth-shaking results. Kenita R. Miller and Alan Mingo, Jr. were delightful as the old couple who raise the orphaned Ti Moune. The rest of the cast contribute engagingly to a musical fable that tries very hard to be magically reductive, but mostly succeeds in being only marginally seductive.

Once on this Island
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty Directed by Thomas Kail

Cast: Darius de Haas (Agwe, God of Water), Kevin R. Free (Tonton Julian), Courtney Harris (Little Ti Moune), Adam Jacobs (Daniel), Syesha Mercado (Ti Moune), Kenita R. Miller (Mama Euralie), Alan Mingo, Jr. (Papa Ge, Demon of Death), Courtney Reed (Andrea), Saycon Sengbloh (Erzulie, Goddess of Love), Jerold E. Solomon (Armand) Aurelia Williams (Asaka, Mother of the Earth)
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes no intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
(973) 376 Ė 4343
Tickets ($25.00 - $96.00)
Performances Wednesdays; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
From 05/30/12
Opened 06/03/12
Ends 06/24/12
Musical Numbers
    Prologue: We Dance/ The Storytellers
  • One Small Girl /Asaka, Erzulie, Papa Ge, Tonton, Mama, Storytellers
  • Waiting for Life /Ti Moune, Storytellers
  • And the Gods Heard Her Prayer /Asaka, Agwe, Erzulie, Papa Ge, Storytellers
  • Rain /Agwe, Asaka, Erzulie, Papa Ge, Storytellers
  • Discovering Daniel / Storytellers, Ti Moune
  • Pray //Ti Moune, Tonton, Mama, Gatekeeper, Peasants
  • Forever Yours /Ti Moune, Daniel, Papa Ge, Storytellers
  • The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes / Armand, Madame Armand, Peasant Girl, Beauxhomme, Storytellers
  • Moune / Mama, Tonton, Ti Moune
  • Mama Will Provide /Asaka, Storytellers
  • Waiting for Life (Reprise) /Ti Moune
  • Some Say /Storytellers, Little Girl
  • The Human Heart Erzulie, Storytellers
  • Pray (Reprise) /Gossipers, Father
  • Some Girls /Daniel
  • The Ball /Storytellers, Andrea, Daniel
  • Ti Moune's Dance /Mama, Tonton, Little Ti Moune
  • Andrea Sequence /Andrea, Ti Moune
  • Promises/Forever Yours (Reprise) /Papa Ge, Ti Moune, Erzulie, Storytellers
  • Wedding Sequence /Asaka
  • A Part of Us /Mama, Little Ti Moune, Tonton, Storytellers
  • Why We Tell the Story /The Storytellers
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