SALT LAKE CITY — The national tour of the recent, Tony-winning Broadway revival of Once on This Island, by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics), will not be making a stop in Salt Lake City. This is all to the good, as otherwise Pioneer Theatre Company would not have been able to license it, and Utah audiences would have been denied PTC’s stirring interpretation. Directed by original Broadway cast member Gerry McIntyre, this production of Once on This Island is the best kind of fairy tale—the kind that is more concerned with revealing the truth about the world than insisting on a conventionally happy ending.
Once on This Island evokes many other well-known love stories—most prominently The Little Mermaid—and is based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, the Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy. On a fictional Caribbean island in the French Antilles, the orphan Ti Moune (played by Tyla Collier) is saved by the Gods from a flood and delivered like a gift from the sea to the peasant couple Tonton Julian (Derrick Cobey) and Mama Euralie (Cicily Daniels). Though Ti Moune is happy, as she grows up she dreams of the more glamorous life of the island’s upper class, who are descended from the French colonizers’ exploitative relationships with the local indigenous people.
The Gods decide to grant Ti Moune her wish, and Papa Ge, Demon of Death (Paul-Jordan Jansen), and Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Kristian Espiritu), make a wager to see whether love or death will prove to be stronger. Soon after, Daniel Beauxhomme (Jordan Alexander), heir of the most prominent family on the island, crashes his car near Ti Moune’s family home. Ti Moune swears to care for him until he recovers from his injuries. She stands up to Papa Ge when he comes to collect Daniel, promising her own life in exchange. As Daniel regains his strength, he falls in love with Ti Moune, despite the Beuxhomme family’s disapproval. Yet unbeknownst to Ti Moune, Daniel is already promised to marry another woman.
The script of Once on This Island includes alternate lines that eliminate references to race, which allow for greater flexibility in casting. Utah productions are usually more white than not. (The first time I saw this play a couple of decades ago, it was with an all-white cast.) So, it is important that PTC has taken the trouble to bring in a cast that is diverse enough to perform the script as originally written. American notions of racial identity do not correspond to those in other parts of the world like one always expects, and Once on This Island explores some of the ways that complexity plays out. This matters because the play, like Guy’s original novel, is not just a tale of class and privilege, but an examination of their intersection with race.
Daniel Meeker’s set, a seaside house in which a young girl (played by Ava Lynn Smith) reads the story of Ti Moune on a stormy night, never changes. If at other venues in the valley one might see a full-blown hurricane and a disorienting, Las Vegas-style assault of LED spectacle, McIntyre is wise to allow traditional stagecraft to work its subtler magic. The collective force of the ensemble has all the more human impact without such distractions. Every aspect of the direction—from the minimalistic approach to the integration of the movement, choreography, and singing—comes together in a theatrical synthesis in service of the story, instead of the other way around.
Jansen, as Papa Ge, sings with a depth of authority that makes it easy to understand his confidence that death will come out the victor. Galyana Castillo, as Asaka, Mother of the Earth, is up to the challenge of the show’s most famous song, “Mama Will Provide,” while Espiritu delivers an affecting rendition of “The Human Heart.” From the human characters, Alexander’s “Some Girls” and Daniels and Cobey’s duet, “Ti Moune,” are highlights—though both are agonizing in their own way. Collier’s Ti Moune is not quite in the same vocal league as the rest of the cast, but she acquits herself well otherwise. Besides, Once on This Island is very much an ensemble piece. Both sung-through and danced-through, it demands a lot from the performers, and the eleven members of the company largely do justice to Ahrens and Flaherty’s score.
Still, the synthesizers in Michael Starobin’s orchestrations sound every day of 30 years old. I prefer the more acoustic vibe of the revival’s orchestrations, with its improvised instruments, that Starobin has updated in collaboration with AnnMarie Millazo. There isn’t really anything Pioneer Theatre Company can do about that, however, because the new orchestrations are not available for licensing yet. But they could do something about the occasional racket of what I presume to be a noisy fan in the air circulation system, which pulled me out of the world of the play more than once.
In confronting the question of which is stronger, love or death, Once on This Island tries to come to a hopeful conclusion. But it is a hope tempered by the fact that death has so many allies—not to mention the irony that death losing to love does not mean that everybody lives. As a poor, racially marginalized woman, Ti Moune sits at a nexus of overlapping forces that will inevitably reward her selflessness with crushing repercussions. At its core, Once on This Island is one more reminder of who usually ends up paying the steepest price for transgressing society’s boundaries.