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Theatre in Review: Once on This Island (Paper Mill Playhouse)

Photo: Jerry Dalia

If you're a fan -- as I am -- of the scores of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, this is something of an event -- a chance to revisit, after two decades, their most successful show after Ragtime. But the real news here is Syesha Mercado; still best known for her appearance on American Idol -- despite her sterling work as Deena Jones in the recent national tour of Dreamgirls -- she impresses once again with her considerable triple-threat skills. Cast as an innocent, yet strong-willed, Caribbean girl who will do anything -- even face down death -- to protect the man she loves, she sings with shiver-inducing power, dances like a natural, and, when called upon, simply and quietly breaks your heart.

Mercado is Ti Moune, an orphan from an unnamed Antillean island who, losing her parents in a storm that she barely survives, is raised by the elderly couple who find her hiding in a tree. She grows into a woman of considerable beauty and charm. Her life is changed forever when she saves Daniel -- the young man she has admired from afar -- from a car accident, and they fall in love.

The island, which in many respects resembles Haiti, is torn by cavernous social divisions. On one side are the dark-skinned natives; on the other are the wealthy mixed-race descendants of the departed French colonizers. Daniel is of the latter class, and, after he is claimed by his family, Ti Moune deserts her village and makes her way to the city, where she and Daniel embark on an affair. Sadly, each sees the relationship in a different light, and Ti Moune is cruelly disillusioned when she crashes a ball thrown by Daniel's family.

With its fairy-tale tone, supporting cast of gods and goddesses (all of whom take an active role in Ti Moune's predicament), and mystical conclusion (in which one of the characters literally merges with nature), Once on This Island, for all its charms, occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between children's theatre and a darker, more adult narrative. (The source material, Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love, was written for the young adult market.) A tragic twist on The Little Mermaid infused with plenty of Caribbean local color, it struggles to remain ebullient even when the story is headed in another, sadder direction. This is especially true of the finale, which tries to turn Ti Moune's ultimate fate into something upbeat, when it is nothing of the kind.

Still, Flaherty's score is an outpouring of melody given an authentic Caribbean patina by Lynne Shankel's orchestrations, and Ahrens' lyrics are never less than perfectly literate and to the point. The opening number, "We Dance," starts things off on an infectious note, and "Mama Will Provide," sung by the earth goddess Asaka, is equally irresistible. Longer, more complex numbers, such as "The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes" and "Some Say," move the story forward with wit and economy. Even if you find the ending a little hard to buy, the finale, "Why We Tell the Story," brings down the curtain on a genuinely uplifting note.

And then there's Mercado, who is thoroughly beguiling in her early scenes, shows a surprising amount of steel in tracking down Daniel, and becomes a genuinely tragic figure later on. From her first number, "Waiting for Life," she effortlessly seizes one's attention without resorting to any of the hard-sell tactics so popular on Broadway today. Although Thomas Kail's production doesn't entirely solve the problem of presenting such an intimate musical in a house as vast as Paper Mill, he gets lovely, unified work from his cast. Among the standouts are Darius de Haas, as Agwe, the god of water; Aurelia Williams, a most agreeable Mother Earth in "Mama Will Provide;" and Saycon Sengbloh, changing hearts with a flick of the wrist as Erzulie, the goddess of love. The long-limbed Alan Mingo, Jr. makes an intriguing Papa Ge, the demon of death -- affable one minute, menacing the next. Adam Jacobs is an attractive, golden-voiced presence as Daniel.

As seen in her Broadway work (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher, for which she won the Tony Award last night), the set designer, Donyale Werle, is a true original; here, she unfurls bolts of blue cloth for oceans and builds palm trees out of the same rickety planks of wood used for island huts. For a number detailing the island's history, she deploys enormous puppets carried on poles. Birds fly along laundry lines and papier-mâché cloud formations appear out of nowhere. This deliberately naïve, folk-art approach is lit with delicacy -- and the occasional stab of saturated color -- by Kenneth Posner. Jessica Jahn's costumes have many whimsical touches -- note the enormous green cape worn by Mama Eulalie. Randy Hansen's sound design is, sadly, problematic; in a show with so much musical narration and many choral numbers, the voices shouldn't have to fight the orchestra to be heard.

If Kail's production is not the sort to prompt reevaluations of Once on This Island, it certainly plays to the piece's considerable strengths and it provides a solid showcase for Mercado. I only hope some producer snaps her up for Broadway, and soon.--David Barbour

(11 June 2012)

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