Caribbean fairy tale “Once on This Island” brings a splash of sunshine into the shadows of Nick Chapel.
A striking contrast to last year’s more serious Dramat freshman show, “Eumenides,” this year’s show has its share of the ridiculous, but is entertaining nonetheless.
The musical takes place on an island in the French Antilles but is supposed to be mythical, set in no definite space or time. The fantasy is spiced with influences from the cultures of Trinidad and Haiti. Reminiscent of “The Little Mermaid,” director Danielle Ryan’s ’06 production has the usual, trite ingredients — class differences, death, promises and unrequited love.
One stormy night on the island, peasants calm a scared little girl by telling her a story. They transform into the characters, trees and breezes as they weave their tale of Ti Moune (Miranda Jones ’06), a poor peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel (Ethan Heard ’06), an upper-class mulatto. Ti Moune saves this boy’s life by offering up her own to the God of Death, Papa Ge (Turner Fishpaw ’06). The four deities: the God of Earth, Asaka (Megan Stern ’06); God of Water, Agwe (Greg Serebuoh ’06); God of Love, Erzulie (Leah Anderson ’06); and Papa Ge guide our heroine through the trials of her love.
Originating in Playwright’s Horizons in 1990, the lyrics and book for the play were written by Lynn Ahrens, who worked in close collaboration with music composer Stephen Flaherty. This musical adaptation of Rosa Guy’s “My Love, My Love” was nominated for eight Tony awards and won the Olivier Award for best musical in 1995. Though an unusual choice for the freshman show, “Once on this Island” is a refreshing departure from typical Yale productions.
The story unfolds in a fairly straightforward and obvious fashion, but the upbeat song-and-dance routines enliven it. Some of the slower love ballads do cross into utter cheesiness — when Ti Moune declares to Daniel “I will never leave you,” the God of Love breaks into “Human Heart” while the rest of the cast stand on the sidelines swaying from side to side. Luckily, they don’t take themselves too seriously, and there are some genuinely amusing moments — such as one villager’s description of Ti Moune making Daniel “rise like the East.”
The range of freshman talent presented is impressive; some were clearly plucked from the world of a cappella. Jones has a clear, powerful, Broadway-style voice. Unfortunately the energy she puts into reaching notes and sheer volume means occasionally sacrificing acting for singing. Heard is a pleasing tenor with a greater emotional and vocal range but much less strength.
Serebuoh has a captivating voice matched by the wonderful vocal talent of Stern, who is fabulous as the buxom Mother Earth. “Mama will Provide” displays an impressive range and sassy slides. Anderson is modest during solos and gentle in her benevolent role. Fishpaw’s performance is the least energetic of the lot, and he seems to lack conviction when he speaks. The rest of the supporting ensemble is very strong, notably David Carpman ’06 as Ton Ton Julian.
The weakest point in the play is “Some Say,” a rhythmic musical number in which the timing is off and the chorus not well-coordinated. Some of the lyrics and narration by the gods are cut off by the background music, which is played too loudly. Though most of the time the funky steel drumbeats are fine, there are points throughout the musical where they drown out the voices of the performers.
Much like the rest of the musical, the costumes are elaborate and over the top. In particular, the gods are decked out in colorful satin capes and lacy sequined bras. Beads, temporary tattoos and glitter coupled with elaborate makeup certainly make the characters appear larger than life.
A notoriously difficult space to work with, Ryan uses Nick Chapel well. She coordinates the actors well and takes advantage of the two levels, particularly in the rain scene where blue material is dropped down and then swirled around the main characters. The set is simple — a large tree in the background and colorful murals on either side. Waves and fishes are painted near and under the seats.
What the tragic tale lacks in plot and character development, it makes up for in plain good fun. It may be rough around the edges, but the cast and crew clearly put a lot of effort into this production, and their enjoyment during the performance is infectious.
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