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The Plain! The Plain!

Imagine You’Re Watching An Entertaining Caribbean-Themed Musical—Welcome To Fantasy Island

ISLAND GIRLS: (from) Miah Marie Patterson And Gayle Turner sing OK, too.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 12/28/2005

Once on This Island By Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

Once on This Island, the new musical at Center Stage, resembles nothing so much as an animated Disney family movie such as Pocahontas. You know the formula: Take a traditional folk tale and update it for suburban audiences with ersatz ethnic characters, ersatz ethnic settings, and ersatz ethnic music. Sometimes this formula can yield a genuine artistic triumph like The Lion King. Unfortunately, Once on This Island is more like Mulan.

A Broadway hit in 1990, Once on This Island shares its source material with another Disney movie, The Little Mermaid. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale was adapted by Rosa Guy into a 1985 novel, My Love, My Love or the Peasant Girl, set in the French Antilles, and that book was then adapted into Once on This Island by librettist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (the team that turned E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime into a similarly generic musical).

The heroine is now Ti Moune, “Little Orphan,” a dark-skinned Caribbean peasant girl who is as out of her element in the island’s light-skinned high society as a mermaid is on dry land. That doesn’t stop her from falling in love with an aristocrat’s son or from offering her life to the gods if they’ll only spare his after an auto accident—a sacrifice not unlike a mermaid giving up her tail.

Ti Moune (Trisha Jeffrey) leaves her foster parents behind in the village to follow her beloved to his gated mansion in the capital; she and he swear their love to each other, but social pressures threaten to tear them apart. And that’s pretty much all there is to the plot.

The show is presented as if it were a folk tale being told by a group of village elders to a young girl. This device merely distances the audience from the material. Instead of characters who sing or talk about their own feelings, Once on This Island is dominated by characters who offer commentary on or synopses of other people’s feelings. Everything in the show happens an arm’s length away.

At least the dancing is fun. Director Kenneth Lee Roberson is also the choreographer, and he keeps his cast of five women, five men, and one young girl in constant motion, sprinting from one corner of the stage to the next, slapping the floor and snatching handkerchiefs from the air, wriggling shoulders and hips.

All these movements are accented by Emilio Sosa’s eye-catching costumes. The God of Death, Papa Ge (Christopher Morgan), for example, is decked out in a black bowler with a curving feather and a jacket with gold epaulets, purple tails, and no sleeves. When he does his boogie strut across the stage, he really does look like the voodoo general of the underground. The Goddess of Farming, Asaka (LaVon Fisher), perches her tiny straw hat precariously atop a bulging head scarf while her big hips roll inside a tightly wrapped, green-print island dress.

If only the music were worthy of such dancing. Does the phrase “Andrew Lloyd Webber does calypso” strike fear in your heart? It should, for it describes the squishy blandness of Ahrens and Flaherty’s songs. The writers have a disconcerting habit of allowing their vocal lines to float above and disconnected from the rhythms below. In the Webber fashion, their numbers are pleasant and vaguely derivative without ever being memorable or compelling.

It doesn’t help matters that the production’s live band—half-hidden behind the second-floor windows on Neil Patel’s Caribbean streetscape set—provides smooth-jazz arrangements that further lower the music’s island content. Nor does it help that no one in the cast is a special enough singer to transcend the material. On the other hand, none of the adults in the cast is a bad singer; they belt out the material in the brassy manner of Broadway shows from the ’40s. In fact, there’s an old-school, show-biz feel to the production that suggests the island of the title is modeled more on Manhattan than Haiti.

If you have a 12-year-old daughter who is tired of being cooped inside all winter and who is tired of watching the same Disney DVDs for the umpteenth time, Once on This Island is the perfect show for her. If you’re familiar with real Caribbean culture and real Caribbean music, you will find this watered-down version hard to swallow.

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