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Once On This Island

By Ariana Mufson
Oh Gods, Oh Gods, are you there?
What can I do to get you to look down and give in?
Oh Gods, Oh Gods, hear my prayer!
I'm here in the field, with my feet on the ground, and my fate in the air waiting for life to begin!

---An impatient Ti Moune in "Waiting for Life/"
Once On This Island
Front: Matt Rochester, Jammie George
Back: Keith Jefferson, Curtis C
(Photo: ShashinDesay)
Once on This Island, which premiered on Broadway in 1990 and received 8 Tony nominations, is a jubilant musical set in the Caribbean that should have us dancing in the aisles. Based on Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid and adapted from Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love, the show tells the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl on a mythical island in the French Antilles where the dark skinned peasants are oppressed by the wealthy class, the Beauxhommes.

Eager for love, young Ti Moune is constantly daydreaming about what life has in store for her. When she audaciously demands to know her destiny, the Gods of water (Agwe), earth (Asaka), love (Erzulie) and death (Papa Ge) decide to "give her what she wants." They place Daniel, a mulatto son of the Beauxhomme, in her path. Of course, he has just been in a car crash, so she nurses him and falls in love. When he goes back to his family, she defies her parents and follows him, becoming his mistress in the land of the Beauxhommes. What happens next is not Disney sweet, but its not as bleak as Anderson's fairy tale either. Without giving too much away, We learn through music and dance that Ti Moune's spirit and love reaches farther than death.

If only the International City Theatre's production lived up to the first-rate score. Unfortunately, the casting, staging and set weaken the production. The director, caryn desai [sic], does little to make the show unique or worth the drive to Long Beach, excepting the group numbers which are well choreographed and energetic.

Ti Moune (Kalene Parker) must convey youth and innocence. Even in her big number "Waiting for Life," Though she is a talented actress Parker never quite captures the wide eyed dreamer or the pouty teenager who defies the gods and her parents to go searching for the boy of her dreams. We identify with the Ti Moune of the score, but Parker appears wise beyond her years and conveys a passionate poise and confidence that doesn't quite work. Her voice, articulate and deep, doesn't have the tremulous uncertainty that should pull at our emotions. Parker does soar in the dance numbers --Ti Moune's dance is a highlight of the show.

Parker might have done better paired with a different Daniel. Marc Summer has neither the necessary charisma or voice to draw us in. Furthermore, the two don't have much chemistry. There is no emotional impact in the duet "Forever Yours," in which a caring and anxious Ti Moune falls in love Daniel while he is in delirious fever. This isn't helped by having Ti Moune nurses a dummy Daniel while the real actor remains behind a scrim upstage. Instead of keeping the duo separated, director desai [sic] could have placed the lovers side by side to actualize their attraction. As is, when they meet again in "Human Heart," sung by Erzulie (a lovely Jammie George), we don't quite know why Ti Moune would offer up her life -- an essential aspect of the show.

Carol Dennis does manage to shine as Mama Euralie. Her passion and phenomenal stage presence and the depth of emotion she pours into her ballads keeps us captivated. Andrea (a well cast Kelsey Scott) also has charisma and a beautiful voice, in both the chorus and as Daniel's fiancee.

One of the strengths of the musical is its ability to engage the audience. While the lighting and costumes beautifully evoke images of the Caribbean, the set keeps even the best moments and actors at arms length.

Instead of a live band, the music comes from off stage and seems muted. The actors sing their hearts out but their best numbers often occur upstage, resigning us to watch the action instead of being swept up in it. If only they had been allowed to jump off the stage, run down the aisles and imbue us with their energy. When the actors line the edge of the stage for their curtain call and the audience is encouraged to clap along to the beat, the magic that should have been present throughout finally kicks in.

Once On This Island
Book and Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens
Music: Stephen Flaherty
Based on the novel My Love, My Love by: Rosa Guy
Director: caryn desai
Choreographer: Janet Rosten
Cast: Charles Alan, Curtis C., Carol Dennis, Jammie George, Keith Jefferson, Kalene Parker, Taylor Parks, Matt Rochester, Kelsey Scott, Marc Summers, Addison Witt
Set Design: Don Llewellyn
Lighting Design: Jeremy Pivnick
Costume Design: Nadine Parkos
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
Running Dates: 2/18/05 to 3/13/05.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. < br> International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach. (562)-436-4610.
Tickets: Friday, Saturday, Sunday: $40-$45. Thursday: $35-$40.
Reviewed by Ariana Mufson on Saturday, February 19, 2005.

Musical Numbers
Prologue/We Dance
  • One Small Girl
  • Waiting for Life
  • And the Gods Heard Her Prayer
  • Rain
  • Pray
  • Forever Yours
  • The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes
  • Ti Moune
  • Mama Will Provide·Waiting for Life (Reprise)
  • Some Say (Reprise)
  • The Human Heart
  • Pray (Reprise)
  • Some Girls
  • The Ball
  • Promises/Forever Yours
  • A Part of Us
  • Why We Tell the Story
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