It may be “the jewel of the Antilles,” but this Caribbean Island is rather rough-cut. It’s split down the middle — by color and class.
On one side live the Peasants, dark-skinned and poor. On the other, the Grands Hommes, wealthy, light-skinned descendants of the French planter/colonialists who mingled with their slaves.
For generations, the peasants have recounted the legend of a young girl who was chosen by the gods to bring the two sides together and prove that Love is stronger than Death.
That fable forms the foundation of “Once on This Island,” which was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” and by the 1985 novel, “My Love, My Love; Or, The Peasant Girl,” by Trinidad-born American writer Rosa Guy.
The musical was created by the team that went on to write “Ragtime” and “Seussical”: Lynn Ahrens (book, lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (score).
The show opened on Broadway in 1990 and ran for 469 performances, garnering eight Tony nominations (though it won no awards). The 2017 Broadway revival ran for a nearly identical 458 performances and also earned eight Tony nominations, and walked away with the award for Best Musical Revival.
In an apt metaphor, as it returns after our horrendous pandemic year, Moonlight Stage Productions, celebrating its 40th anniversary, is also proving that Love triumphs over Death, telling this story of grief, pain, faith and hope.
The Peasants believe in the life-giving powers of Ezulie, goddess of love (Anise Ritchie); Asaka, goddess of Earth (Jodi Marks); Agwe, god of Water (Nathan Andrew Riley), and Papa Ge, the much-feared god of Death (Edred Utomi). These four are the most interesting characters in the production, wonderfully played by the most experienced actors on the stage.
At the center of the story is the orphan Ti Moune (young power-voiced Brooke Henderson, a five-year veteran of The Old Globe’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” now a sophomore in college).
Born a Peasant, Ti Moune prays to find her purpose in life, and the ability to go to the other side of the island. The gods make both her wishes come true by bringing her together with Daniel (Ala Tiatia-Garaoud, convincing in a small but seminal role). When he is seriously injured in a car crash, she saves his life and nurses him back to health.
But her adoptive parents (Patricia Jewel, Leo Ebanks) insist that he return to his family and his predestined life.
By this point, Ti Moune is deeply in love, and convinced that she will be able to defy the island’s divisions and make a life with Daniel. When the nefarious Papa Ge comes to claim him, Ti Moune offers her own life in exchange for Daniel’s. The result isn’t a fairy-tale ending, but it certainly has mythic qualities.
Rounding out the 11-member ensemble, strong singers all, are Kevin “Blax” Burroughs as Armand and Maya Washington as Little Ti Moune.
This musical is tricky. Many of the calypso-inflected songs tend to sound alike. Director-choreographer Paul David Bryant, who has helmed four other shows at Moonlight, and has a long history as a performer in Ahrens and Flaherty’s magnificent “Ragtime,” doesn’t quite manage to mesh the magic of a fantasy with an earthbound color/class love story.
The choreography has a sameness to it. Plus, there’s not enough of a sense of joy, and virtually no attempt to inject much-needed humor into the often too-earnest piece.
But the rockin’ 6-piece band, under the baton of music director Lyndon Pugeda, is excellent. Most noteworthy is the percussion (Mike Dooley), with its island-invoking bongos and steel drums.
The sound design (Jim Zadai) is crisp. The lighting (Jennifer Edwards) is also effective. More problematic are the sets and costumes (rented from 3-D Theatricals, who have frequently provided Moonlight with wonderful trappings).
It’s not at all clear what all those stacked and suspended wood slats are supposed to represent; they certainly don’t capture both sides of the island. They’re rescued by Blake McCarty’s marvelous, painterly projections, which appear to be hand-rendered, adding just the touch of enchantment this folktale demands.
The costumes for the gods are elaborate and fanciful. But the rest are fairly nondescript or unattractive, and there is little to distinguish the poor from the rich when the versatile actors quickly switch from one group to the other. A costume standout comes at the Grands Hommes’ masked ball; Ti Moune, dressed up in a stunning, canary-yellow gown, performs an electrifying dance.
For years, there has been one summer show per Moonlight season that’s a little out-of-the-box, a tad more demanding for the general audience. “Once on Theis Island” seems to be the one this year.
Bravo to Moonlight for not just playing it safe, but taking on risks and challenges.
Welcome back, Moonlight — and Happy Anniversary!
- “Once on This Island” runs through July 3 at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Dr. in Vista
- Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
- Tickets ($17-$57) are available at 760-724-2110 or online at moonlightstage.com
- Running time: 1 hrs. 45 min.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.