Produced by: TheatreWorks
Featuring: Dawn L. Troupe, Berwick Haynes, Salisha Thomas, Paris Nix, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Michelle Cabinian, Max Kumangai, Safiya Fredericks, Omari Tau, Adrienne Muller and Khalia Davis
Directed by: Robert Kelley
Choreography by: Gerry McIntyre
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes, no intermission
When: March 5-30, 2014
Where: Lucy Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California
Tickets:$19-$73. Visit theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960
It's nearly impossible to just sit still when watching and listening to the Caribbean-infused melodies and infectiously jubilant singing of the near-flawless cast of TheatreWorks' vibrant production of "Once On This Island." On opening weekend, the audiences in the venerable Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto were practically dancing in the aisles.
Fortunately for theatergoers, the calypso beat goes on six nights a week (and twice on most Saturdays and Sundays) through March 30.
From the instant the frightening thunder and lightning launch the show and the high-energy actors come onstage as storytellers to sing the opening number "We Dance," the audience willingly falls under the spell of Robert Kelley's taut direction of the 1990 Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical. "Island" was their first Broadway collaboration, and they later created the Tony award-winning "Ragtime" as well as the Dr. Seuss-based musical "Seussical."
TheatreWorks actually offered up "Island" 21 years ago, and director Kelley says he's been eager to bring it back.
One of the best choices he made was to select award-winning actor and choreographer Gerry McIntyre to create the choreography for this production. It's energizing, exciting and always inventive. McIntyre, who played the part of Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, when "Island" opened on Broadway, is a significant reason the TheatreWorks version is so pleasurable.
The story itself is somewhat hard to believe but then, you don't have to believe it. Just go along for the ride.
It begins with the village storytellers trying to calm down a youthful girl frightened by the storm. They share the tale of Ti Moune, a young peasant girl who is orphaned on an island in the French Antilles. She is "adopted" by a childless couple, Mama Euralie (a kind, grounded Dawn L. Troupe) and Tonton Julian (gruff but loving Berwick Haynes). They are the dark-skinned villagers who live on one side of the island, while the cream-skinned "grand hommes" who live in grand homes on the island's other side are descendants of the original French plantation owners.
As Ti Moune grows up, she begins to dream big, and when a handsome young grand homme named Daniel Beauxhomme (which means beautiful man and is played by a suave Paris Nix) is critically injured in a car accident, Ti Moune helps nurse him back to health until his servants find him and take him back to his palace.
Of course Ti Moune sneaks back to see him, and of course she heals his injured leg, and of course they fall in love and make round-the-clock love for two weeks or so.
That the lovers are star-crossed and that they all will not end well is blatantly obvious, but it's a rollicking ride anyway.
It's interesting that Ahern and Flaherty took a few pages from several other well-known plays. Besides Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" leanings, there's a fun little scene where the villagers don white-faced masks and relate "The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes" that has several surprising similarities to the narrated ballet called "Small House of Uncle Thomas" in "The King and I."
This production has a number of first-rate performances, not the least of which is Max Kumangai's as the dastardly, devilish Papa Ge, who laughingly extracts an agreement from Ti Moune that she'll give up her own life and soul if only he will save her beloved Daniel. (And doesn't that sound a lot like Joe the baseball player's deal with the Devil in "Damn Yankees"?)
There are two Ti Mounes in "Island," and both are excellent. "Little Ti Moune" is played by Khalia Davis, who in real life has already graduated from college and runs her own children's web production company. Though she's just a couple of inches shorter than her older self, Davis succeeds at looking younger with a delightful wide-eyed expression, a loose-fitting tropical dress and hair braided with rags.
But it is the fully grown Ti Moune, a luminescent Salisha Thomas, who gives this production its specialness. She is always going full-bore, always open to exploring the world and always eager to love first her parents and then Daniel. Her impetuous nature makes her all the more real, and when she is thrown aside by her true love, the audience shares in her heartbreak.
Wait there are still more special moments in TheatreWorks' "Island:" As Agwe, God of Water, Omari Tau practically brings down the house with his infectious, foot-stomping version of the song "Rain"; Adrienne Muller is gentle perfection as Erzulie, the Goddess of Love; and Michelle Cabinian, while proficient as a villager, performs a graceful ballet number when she becomes the aristocratic woman who has been betrothed to Daniel since childhood.
Yet all of this wouldn't have quite congealed without the fluidity and gorgeous palette of colors on Joe Ragey's simple yet effective island set, as well as William Liberatore's lively, upbeat musical direction. Surprisingly, all the rich sound came from seven musicians, although one was playing a synthesizer.
Most of Cathleen Edwards' costumes looked authentic for the Caribbean-heavy theme, especially for the feminine half of the cast. There were just a couple of gaffs for the men's costumes. For one, Paris Nix plays a villager in the opening number, yet his pants looked too clean and new for that role. Later, as Daniel, it's fine for him to wear unwrinkled khakis, but it might be better to give him a more "used" pair as a villager. Likewise, it's fine for Kumangai to wear pants that are neatly cut at the bottom as Papa Ge, but as a simple villager, his clothes should be shoddier.
As for how it all ends, well, never mind. It's silly, but apparently Ahrens felt audiences would prefer an upbeat conclusion. Just enjoy the songs, the music, the acting and dance on out the door.