An early triumph from composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who would go on to the mega-musical versions of Ragtime and Seussical, Island scored a batch of Tony Award nominations in 1990 and has been a popular choice for summer-stock seasons ever since. (Maybe too popular: Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre launches its own Island
on June 17, a scheduling kerfuffle between CRT and Hangar that does
neither neighboring company any favors.) Ahrens and Flaherty based
their show on Trinidad-born Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel My Love, My Love, a reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Yet long-in-the-tooth theatergoers may link the play’s sociological context to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Younger viewers, however, could also make the case that the Caribbean-flavored Once On This Island might have inspired the creation of the Nickelodeon kiddie show Gullah Gullah Island.
Rhythm method: Kelli Blackwell (right) in Cortland Repertory’s Once On This Island.
On a dark and stormy night on an island
in the French Antilles, a young girl (Zaibeth Clendenning) is fearful
of all the nocturnal noise. Her family gathers around to help calm her
down, while also spinning a yarn about a peasant girl named Ti Moune
who was found clinging to a high tree limb following a flood. Ti Moune
had some spiritual aid in getting up that tree, however, with Asaka,
Mother of the Earth (Kelli Blackwell), Erzulie, Goddess of Love
(Crystal Rona Peterson) and Agwe, God of Water (Azudi Onyejekwe) as
able assistants. On the sidelines lurks Papa Ge, Demon of Death
(Gabriel Mudd) to provide some dramatic counterpoint when Ti Moune’s
soul will one day be up for grabs.
Fast-forward to the adult Ti Moune
(Traci Allen), still a peasant and yearning for a better life that
might be provided by a vision in white named Daniel (Andrew Chappelle),
son of the island’s wealthiest family. Ti Moune hopes the gods will
help in her romantic hookup, and Agwe obliges with a rainstorm that
causes Daniel’s car to crash, with his nearly lifeless body now in Ti
Moune’s care. Erzulie further sweetens the deal during the song “The
Human Heart,” as Ti Moune tends to healing Daniel’s wounded left leg,
and it’s inevitable that his middle leg will surely follow. OH SNAP!
But Papa Ge is still around to keep things interesting, as he offers
one permanent solution when the Ti Moune-Daniel romance reaches its
The songbook concocted by Ahrens and
Flaherty amounts to a lilting earful, with pretty harmonies and
colorful patois delivered by Cortland Rep’s talented cast. The company
reaches a high point with “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” as the
villagers recreate the island’s history of French colonization and the
resultant mixed bloodlines. It’s a shorthand explanation of cultural
collision that manages to be tropical and topical.
Once On This Island is probably best presented as
a vibrant fairy tale, as the play explores some occasional dark avenues
but audiences should also come away having learned a moral lesson. At
Cortland Rep, director-choreographer Daniel B. Hess orchestrates a
kinetic swirl; his careful blocking and quicksilver pacing keep the
show’s visual movements constant and everchanging. Indeed, you may not
even notice that the cast members are hoofing away in their bare feet.
Hess has his subtle moments, too: During some wooing between Daniel and
Ti Moune in the front of the stage, he introduces the character of
Andrea (played by Noellia Hernandez) near the back of the set, as she
performs an interpretive dance behind them—a hint that Andrea will
ultimately come between them.
Traci Allen displays a virginal
perkiness as Ti Moune, this play’s sweet emotional center, and she’s
surrounded by an able ensemble of supporting players who manage to
provide textured turns instead of broadly overplaying their roles.
Gabriel Mudd as Papa Ge, for instance, is suavely menacing, even with
that deep, sinister laugh reminiscent of Geoffrey Holder from those old
7Up “Uncola nuts” TV commercials. Kelli Blackwell shimmies like
nobody’s business during Asaka’s enthusiastic number “Mama Will
Provide.” And Mitzi Greshawn Smith and Kevin Bradley Jr. strike the
right notes of empathy as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents.
Scenic designer Sarah Martin conjures a
minimalist yet evocative set, with room to roam for the players and a
floor that’s happily decorated in various designs that correlate with
the play’s ecological and spiritual gods. Fruit-salad color schemes
dominate the look of Jimmy Johansmeyer’s eye-filling costumes; a flock
of toucans could easily be camouflaged amid some of his apparel. Sound
designer David Huber offers a seat-rumbling thunderstorm to get the
play off with a bang, while music director David Hahn and his trio
deliver Caribbean rhythms spiced with some gentle funk. They all
conspire to make Cortland Repertory’s Once On This Island glide comfortably by like a summer breeze.
This production runs through Saturday, June 13. See Times Table for information.