Thomas Kail’s athletic and inventively theatrical directing chops (In The Heights, Lombardi, Magic/Bird) prove a perfect match for Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Caribbean story-theatre musical Once On This Island. The beguiling new production gracing the Paper Mill stage is full of vibrant performances and colorful stagecraft.
Perhaps a bit overshadowed by large-scale productions like The Will Rogers Follies, Miss Saigon and The Secret Garden when it transferred to Broadway via Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 1990 (The 1994 West End production did win the Olivier Award for Best Musical.), Once On This Island is a flavorful charmer suitable for the whole family.
The play within a play structure has an ensemble of villagers from the French Antilles distracting a frightened child (Courtney Harris) from a scary thunderstorm by acting out the story of Ti Moune (Syesha Mercado), an adopted girl from the peasant side of the island where the “black as night” natives live their lives controlled by the whims of the gods of Earth (Aurelia Williams), Water (Darius de Haas), Love (Saycon Sengbloh) and Death (Alan Mingo, Jr.).
Ti Moune’s prayers to find a purpose in life prompt an other-worldly bet to see which is stronger, love or death, and an encounter is arranged between her and the wealthy and handsome Daniel (Adam Jacobs) from the side of the island where lighter-skinned descendants of French planters live. Ti Moune’s love for Daniel tests the social restrictions that forbid a relationship between them and while the outcome of the story is realistic, it is also optimistic.
Mercado’s greatest strength as Ti Moune is a powerful belt that launches the money notes of her character-introducing song, “Waiting For Life.” She’s an appealing performer and Kail surrounds her with a company of well-seasoned musical theatre actors who each claim their moments to shine; particularly Kenita R. Miller and Kevin R. Free, who bring deep feelings and comical warmth to their roles as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents and Williams, completely enthralling in her robust rendition of “Mama Will Provide.”
Donyale Werle's do-it-yourself set pieces inspire a lively “little theatre” atmosphere, with Kenneth Posner's lights and Jessica Jahn's costumes providing the kind of colorful joy expressed through Bradley Rapier's choreography.
The production glides through its ninety minutes on waves of captivating performances, beautiful singing and material that teaches the importance of handing down the traditions and folklore of a community through story-telling. It’s a wonderful night out.
Photos by Jerry Dalia: Top: Darius de Haas, Saycon Sengbloh, Jerold E. Solomon, Kenita R. Miller, AureLia Williams, Alan Mingo Jr., Syesha Mercado and Courtney Reed; Bottom: Courtney Reed, Saycon Sengbloh, Adam Jacobs, Syesha Mercado, Alan Mingo, Jr., and AureLia Williams.