KPBS AIRDATE: August 20, 1992
It starts with a tantalizing island drumbeat and a flash of lightning. A little girl is frightened by the tropical storm, and to calm her, ten adults act out the story of Ti-Moune, telling the child what happened “Once on this Island .” The whole buoyant musical is framed as an oral narrative, the telling of a fairy tale, to the little girl, and to the audience. We are all swept away by the story.
It’s a 100 year-old, timeless tale, originating as “The Little Mermaid” of Hans Christian Andersen, and based on an adaptation by Trinidad novelist Rosa Guy. It’s the story of a love between two people from two different worlds. Hollywood loves this stuff. There was the outsider and the Amish in “Witness” and the cop and the Hasid in “Stranger in our Midst.”
Here we have Ti-Moune, the island waif who was washed ashore as an orphan in the French Antilles and raised by local peasants. On the other side of the island are the uppity, Frenchified mulattos. Ti-Moune and Daniel fall in love. The gods make regular appearances, propelling the story forward with some of the best musical numbers in the production.
It’s perfect for a fairy tale. Simply magical. Small and intimate — as much as that’s possible in the massive Civic Theatre. It isn’t stretched and overblown, or ultra-dark, like Sondheim’s underbelly of fairy tales, “Into the Woods.” The calypso rhythms keep things light, though things don’t always work as we’d like. And underlying that are race, class and gender inequities.
But the fantasy is pure and unadorned, and the singing and dancing are divine. Stephen Flaherty’s music may become repetitive at times, but I find no fault with Graciela Daniele’s direction and choreography. Every move is orchestrated, vibrant, sensual and full of life.
The ensemble is wonderful, but there are a couple of standouts. Alvaleta Guess is a huge, warm, ruby-throated Asaka, Mother of the Earth. She really looks the role. As Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, Gerry McIntyre doesn’t have a big part, but when he’s center stage, you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s a big, graceful guy with a gargantuan grin, a cross between Geoffrey Holder and Ben Vereen. Watch out for this one in the future.
Vanita Harbour is a sweet Ti-Moune with a big, big voice, but she kept making me thing she was playing Dorothy in “The Wiz.” When she does her sexy, gyrating, island dance, though, you know you’re not in Kansas .
“Once on this Island ” transports you to another world, which trades in rare and valuable commodities: simplicity, magic, innocence and charm. You won’t find that outside the theater — or inside, most often, either.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.