6/19/2021 ONCE ON THIS ISLAND Jennie T. Anderson Theatre Concert Series
WHY WE TELL THE STORY
Earlier this month. I praised the live stream of Nine, part of the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre’s 2021 Concert Series, saying it was so well done, I anticipate with enthusiasm seeing “each and every” entry in the series. Faster than you can say “catch up on the one you missed,” the April/May production of Once on This Island was offered as a one-night only LIVE Drive-in concert. Last night’s rain forced it inside, so, welcome to my comments on the FIRST LIVE THEATRE EVENT to capture my attention since March of 2020.
And, let me say it up front, the production met my expectations, apart from some technical glitches (forgivable because of the hasty move from the parking lot to the stage), and one unfortunate design choice, which I’ll address shortly. But first, let me plagiarize a template I first created for Aurora Theatre’s marvelous 2009 production of this play.
It’s a familiar story. In fact, it’s a couple of familiar stories. Girl falls in love with boy from other side of the island, Gods bet on humans’ constancy, tragedy ensues, Gods engineer happy ending. It’s Romeo and Juliet, Ariel and her Prince, Tony and Maria, Captain Kirk and Edith Keeler, Buffy and Angel. And no matter how many times it’s told, no matter how many settings it’s placed in, no matter how many hearts it breaks, what really matters is that it really matters.
In Once on this Island, the peasant inhabitants of a small nameless island are watched over by the Gods of Love, of Earth, of Water, and of Death. They live in isolation from the “others,” the city-dwellers, the descendants of the original inhabitants and their slaves. The God of Water sends a storm and young Ti Moune survives, now an orphan. When she grows up, the antic God of Death wants to prove that death is stronger than love, so he sends the lighter-skinned Daniel to the peasant side, victim of a car crash. The rest of the play follows the expected story. Ti Moune follows Daniel to the city, nurses him back to health, and falls in love with him. But societies isolated from each other have separate and contradictory traditions. Will death be stronger than love? Will tradition and duty?
This is a sweet little musical filled with marvelous Caribbean-influenced songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime and Seussical). If the archetypical story is familiar enough, the specific trappings are not. I really like the transformative dénouement, the specifics of the Gods’ characters, and the unconditional devotion of Ti Moune to both Daniel and her traditions. If Daniel’s embracement of his own traditions and commitments is a bit unexpected, he has the good graces to not like the choice he feels compelled to make.
If the concert format (really Readers’ Theatre for musicals) makes some plot points fuzzy and just out of reach (the addition of a narrator to fill in the gaps would have been welcome), the cast burns with fire and talent. Led by the incomparable L’Oréal Roaché (who gives the adult Ti Moune an innocence and sincerity that is effective and memorable), they all have voices that soar, that sparkle, that drive home each emotional beat like a punch to the solar plexus. As the “Gods,” Janine Ayn (Erzulie, Goddess of Love), Fenner Eady (Agwe, God of Water), Stephanie Zandra (Asaka, Goddess of Earth), and (especially) Trevor Rayshay Petty (Papa Ge, God of Death) all create vividly spectacular (dare I say “Larger than Life”?) characters who gleefully drive the plot, making its tragic aura almost joyful.
Kudos also to the “humans”: Arjay Johnson as young Ti Moune, Jarius Cliett as Daniel, Kayce Grogan-Wallace and Adam Washington as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents, Kendra Johnson as Andrea (Daniel’s intended), and Lamont J. Hill as Daniel’s father (and ancestors). Overall, this is a cast to love, an ensemble whose every musical moment proves the power of the concert format. Much credit for the musical success is definitely attributable to Music Director John-Michael d’Haviland and his talented instrumentalists.
Okay, admittedly the sound tech was a “work in progress” as mikes dropped out (forcing the performers to impressively belt-project to be heard), and the mix occasionally let the accompaniment overpower the lyrics. But, considering the rapid move indoors, that is not only forgivable, but actually a bit welcome, a “rough edge” to remind us that we are once again experiencing LIVE THEATRE (Huzzah!).
What’s not so forgivable is the lighting designer’s choice to make full use of the venue’s computer-controlled razzle-dazzlers to project dizzyingly elaborate images that dance and change color, moving from backdrop to house ceiling, and, in general, that distract from the story and the artists. If the aim of the concert format is to put focus on the music and the performances, why steal that focus with a (basically pointless) light show? When the lights are dancing around and the performers are standing still, it is natural for audience eyes to follow what is moving, especially egregious when that movement is above our heads and not behind the cast. The numbers that truly worked the best were those with no razzle-dazzle, just a singer, an orchestra, and a saturate-color back drop THAT DIDN’T MOVE.
All that being said, these actors, these musicians, had the energy and talent to capture my attention, even when the light show threatened to derail them.
So the question remains, why is such a familiar, and oft-told tale so enjoyable, so compelling, so moving? Can it be something so simple that we are genetically programmed to believe love transcends death, tradition, and expectation? Can it be that we know love can be a two-edged sword, that it cuts both to the heart and through it? I suspect this latter may have something to do with it. We’ve all felt the pain of heart-break, the joy of requited love, the frustration of accommodating those loved-one quirks that drive us bananas. Simple tales of unconditional love reaffirm the choices we have made, the affections we have built, the ties we have chosen to bind us.
And when things go south, as they inevitably do in small ways, as they too often do in large ways, it is comforting, moving to see a story that reassures us that even when things go completely wrong, we know that love can kick death’s butt anywhere anytime and in any tradition.
And that, my friends, is “Why We Tell the Story.” And that is why we WANT to see the story in a live theatre, with a roomful of friends we’ve yet to meet, with a cast who astound, and especially, with a story that dances.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #OnceOnThisIsland #JennieTAndersonTheatre)