Once on This Island: Vote that guy off

Ti Moune (Brianna Clark) tends to Daniel (Michael Gnansounou) in Once on This Island.

Ti Moune (Brianna Clark) tends to Daniel (Michael Gnansounou) in Once on This Island.

In Once on This Island, love triumphs—supposedly. It’s really sexism that wins.

If you want to be surprised by the story, don’t read any further; to make my point, I’m going to give away the plot.

In this musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1990 and which is currently enjoying a wildly successful Broadway revival, an island in the French Antilles is divided into two groups: poor, dark-skinned people and a wealthy elite whose ancestry includes white French colonialists.

A peasant girl named Ti Moune falls in love with a rich kid named Daniel Beauxhomme. When Daniel crashes his car on her side of the island, Ti Moune saves his life by nursing him—and by making a deal with Death. There are gods on the island and one of them, Papa Ge, is a Caribbean version of the Grim Reaper. Ti Moune offers Papa Ge her own life in exchange for Daniel’s. It takes a while for Papa Ge to collect.

When Daniel’s family scoops him up and takes him back to their ritzy enclave, Ti Moune makes the risky journey to his side. As she nurses him back to full health, they become lovers and plan their future together. Then Daniel’s fiancée Andrea suggests it’s about time for Daniel to inform Ti Moune that he will never marry her. He does and basically says, “Sorry, I thought you knew the deal here. I can’t change who I am.”

Tossed out of the mansion, Ti Moune languishes at its gates, ignored by Daniel, and Papa Ge comes to claim her life—but there’s a twist: Papa Ge will let Ti Moune live if she kills Daniel. Ti Moune can’t bring herself to do that, though, because her love is true. The gods reward her faithfulness by transforming her into a tree. The point of the story is supposedly that love conquers death.

But the real point of the story is that women—specifically poor, dark-skinned women—should forgive the men who sexually exploit them because that’s what real love looks like. Men get to fuck who they want, but women are supposed to stay true. And, in terms of race, consider the way the musical presents Ti Moune: her charm is a product of her childlike innocence and exuberance: she sure can dance.

To be clear: as in the New York production, the casting in this local, mostly amateur mounting ignores the island’s colour lines—Brianna Clark, who’s playing Ti Moune is lighter skinned than Michael Gnansounou, who is playing Daniel, for instance—but this casting strategy obscures rather than excuses the musical’s racial politics.

So how the hell is Once on This Island managing to rake it in at the box office in New York in this age of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter? Well, the musical—music by Stephen Flaherty and book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens—is overflowing with texture. It’s a fable: birds, trees, and gods all sing. This opens up glorious design possibilities. And the rhythms in the Caribbean-themed music are fabulous. Some of the songs—including “The Human Heart”, despite the extreme simplicity of its lyrics—are moving, thanks largely to the beauty of their melodies.

How well does this Fabulist Theatre production do with this wonky material? They do okay.

As I launch into this part of the review, it’s worth noting that Fabulist Theatre kindly allowed me to attend a preview performance. Some things I had problems with may get fixed by opening night or during the run, so my remarks should be taken in that context.

With her bell-like voice and charismatic presence, Brianna Clark, who’s playing Ti Moune, is the undeniable star of this mounting. She’s a touching actor, too—unafraid of her character’s vulnerability, for instance, when Ti Moune leaves her adoptive parents to seek out Daniel in his home.

Sari Rosofsky makes an athletic, strong-voiced Papa Ge. (Rosofksy is female; the gods in this musical are often played as gender-fluid.) And Karliana de Wolff brings a knife-like presence to Andrea. Under Amy Gartner’s musical direction, the choral work is consistently strong.

That said, the sound levels were a mess during the preview I attended. Although all of the performers were using microphones, several were often hard to hear, which begs the question: Why the heck would you use mics in a 200-seat venue? Tone down the orchestra already and cast singers who can project.

Lighting designer Michael Methot only lights the action part of the time. In “Mama Will Provide”, for instance, the earth goddess Asaka, who is the primary singer, moves with Ti Moune from a dark area upstage through the light to a dark area downstage.

Director Damon Bradley Jang tries to squeeze too large a cast onto the tiny Red Gate Revue stage and his blocking often forces central characters to upstage themselves. In Marion Landers’s choreography, there’s very little flow between steps.

One the upside, costume designer Chris Sinosich manages to come up with a whole lot of wardrobe on what must have been a limited budget and the results, including the white dresses worn by the women in the Beauxhomme mansion, are often charming.

So there are some things to like here, but they don’t include the musical’s politics.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND Music by Stephen Flaherty. Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the novel My Love, My Love; or The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy. Directed by Damon Bradley Jang. A Fabulist Theatre production. Seen in preview the Red Gate Revue Stage on Friday, April 6. Continues until April 14.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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