You might've expected this standard to be compromised with 1995's Lucky Stiff, a musical farce by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens that basically put sing-song melodies to that classic Weekend at Bernie's concept. The show was the biggest hit of that season, and although I missed it, I have been told by someone who didn't laugh himself silly: "It was too light on its feet to be annoying." This is uncommon praise indeed from a man who grimly nitpicks every play he sees.
For its fourth subscription show of the season, Theatre Three has turned to the Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens team again for Once On This Island, a smash hit in New York City that has paved the way for the duo's upcoming, buzz-wrapped Ragtime, based on E.L Doctorow's book.
Although taken specifically from a novel by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island was touted heavily as a version of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" in the transition from 1990 off-Broadway debut to Broadway smash. The first big hit of the Disney animation renaissance certainly influenced this emphasis on the similarities between the two stories--a young woman dies to save the man she loves but cannot have.
Now, you don't have to be Patricia Ireland to find this scenario creepy, whether it be between a female half-fish and a whole man or a pureblooded Caribbean woman and "a pale mulatto boy," as Flaherty and Ahrens describe the hero in Once On This Island.
Not so long ago, this phenomenon was more fun to watch than experience. Nowadays, the scales are balanced; when a character or their amour dies in some stage of unrequited or unconsummated but oh-so-"true" passion, we don't think that the sheer act of loving itself has erased the tragedy. We think somebody got screwed, just like we'd think if it happened to us.
Well, thanks to Theatre Three's blood-rushing, throat-wailing production of Once On This Island, audiences can have their heartbreak and be pissed at it, too. Since I've left two Sondheim musicals--Assassins and Into the Woods--with my pores buzzing and a first experience with The Fantasticks warmly (and surprisingly) engaged, I must say this is the most rousing musical production I've seen them mount.
One can only nominally credit Stephen Flaherty's melodies, and even less Lynn Ahrens' book and lyrics. This show is destined to be the official United Interscholastic League entry of many a high school. This doesn't suggest incompetence on the musical's part, just a stern simplicity and inherent inoffensiveness that requires truly agile, expressive performers to keep those audience fires burning.
Under the direction of New Theatre Company's Bruce Coleman, the singer-actors in Once On This Island swirl and ricochet in great throbbing bursts of vocal emotion. The 11 African-American actors recreate a Caribbean mythology of island conflicts between God and mortal, spawned from one young woman's ignorance of her community's law of love.
Ti Moune (Yolanda Williams) is the most famous orphan in her village because she was willed by the gods to be rescued by a tree in the great flood that killed her parents. Adopted by a childless elderly couple (Denise Lee and Marcus M. Maudlin), Ti Moune wanders the island by night "Waiting for Life," as the score's third tune relates.
She discovers life in the near-final grip of death. Ti Moune witnesses a car accident during one of her storm-tossed strolls; a young mulatto nobleman who lives behind the city's high walls has ventured out and been struck down. The accident is beautifully recreated with actor Khary Paton, who plays the privileged love object Daniel. Between twin flashlights about headlights' length apart, he strolls briskly through a tunnel of company members twirling umbrellas made of clear, rain-like plastic strips. He smashes up in a chaos of lights.
Ti Moune begins to nurse the critically ill Daniel, ignoring her own needs and the protests of her parents, who don't want some rich kid dying on their porch and bringing down the wrath of the city officials. She also boldly challenges the island gods who want to determine his fate--earth mother Asaka (Liz Mikel); love goddess Erzulie (Natalie King); demon of death Papa Ge (Frank Lawson, Jr.); and water god Agwe (Patrick Amos).
As you might expect in any effective production of Once On This Island, Theatre Three's interpretation rests in the capable arms of four awesome singing actors who create a calypso variation on Mount Olympus. They will raise this saga of unrequited love to a celestial realm. Liz Mikel proves just as effective an earth mother Asaka as she did Satan in Extra Virgin Theatre Cooperative's The Bargain; she's a big woman with a big, sultry voice who prowls the stage like a hungry feline. Natalie King as Erzulie delivers what might be the show's best number, "The Human Heart." It's a tear-drenched ballad that, like the best gospel-influenced laments, finds redemption in tears. Frank Lawson, Jr. as Papa Ge is a wicked, gleeful taker of life who intrudes on a tender ballad between Ti Moune and Daniel called "Forever Yours" to remind Ti Moune that payment is due--she will be forever his unless she takes decisive action.
Since you already know that Once On This Island takes its inspiration from "The Little Mermaid," it won't be revealing too much to say that this musical doesn't end with grandchildren running at the feet of the contented, elderly Ti Moune and Daniel. We are informed in the closer "Why We Tell The Story" that it's really something to celebrate when Daniel marries another woman about whom he neglected to tell Ti Moune--oops!--and our heroine, for all her sweat and heartache, gets to become a tree that grows in the middle of the gated city.
The story of Ti Moune and Daniel is framed in Once On This Island as a tale told to a little girl (Brie Witherspoon, who also plays the child Ti Moune) by villagers who will become, Wizard of Oz-style, the characters in the fantastic saga. The story is intended to comfort the girl in the midst of a fierce storm. This passionate fable about a woman who gladly dies for a man who lacks the spine to ignore what the neighbors think will no doubt take her mind off the wind and the lightning. The question is, What story will the adults come up with when she starts having nightmares about trees wearing wedding dresses?
Once On This Island runs through February 9. Call 871-3300.