It may be a scant three miles from my house to the Paper Mill Playhouse, but after the rousing performance of their final offering of the 20111-2012 season, Once on This Island, I felt like I had spent a long weekend in "the jewel of the Lesser Antilles"! Jam-packed with driving musical rhythms, captivating choreography and cleverly imagined scenery—along with an all-star cast of Broadway caliber—the performance moved along to its denouement so inexorably (and smoothly) as to make the 90 minutes fly by in a wink.
Using nonstop music and dance, Once on This Island tells the tale of Ti Moune, a beautiful young girl who rescues and falls in love with a wealthy, handsome boy after a horrendous car crash. When he returns to his people, the fantastical gods who rule the island guide Ti Moune on a quest that tests the strength of her love against the powerful forces of prejudice, hatred and death. (From left to right: Darius de Haas, Saycon Sengbloh, Jerold E. Solomon, Kenita R. Miller, Aurelia Williams, Alan Mingo Jr., Syesha Mercado and Courtney Reed.)
Ti Moune is out of her element on the other side of the island, for she is a darker-skinned peasant girl while Daniel, the man she loves, is a mulatto, a descendent of the offspring of the French planters and their slaves. Of course, in this rigid, class-bound society, such a match can never be, and although Daniel loves Ti Moune, he is forced to renounce her, whereupon she dies and is transformed into a beautiful tree, splitting the mulatto-owned Hotel Beaux Hommes' gate that keeps out the undesirable peasants and bringing about a reconciliation between the two disparate peoples. (Above: the cast portrays the Beaux Hommes with the use of masks.)
The Paper Mill Playhouse has billed their production of Once on This Island as "re-imagined" and "re-invented," and indeed, the show features re-conceived orchestrations, a multi-ethnic cast and new staging under the direction of Tony Award-nominated director Thomas Kail. The result is a knockout of a show that shakes the rafters of the large Paper Mill auditorium.
First off, the imaginative scenery is every bit a star as the 10 actors onstage. Donyale Werle's use of inventive props, clouds that descend from the upper reaches of the stage, movable huts and a sea on the back wall that ebbs and flows with the tide is truly remarkable without being too elaborate. Jessica Jahn's costumes compliment Werle's set, especially those that adorn the gods; the huge green net stole worn by Asaka, Mother of the Earth, is especially fabulous. And Kenneth Posner's lighting and Randy Hansen's evocative sound (especially the storms that batter the island) supply atmosphere appropriate to the changing weather and time's passage. (Above left: Ti Moune is transformed into a tree.)
All this provides a marvelous canvas against which Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's delicious musical tale unfolds. And in a show where music and dance substitute for dialogue, thus curtailing real character development, selecting the right cast is paramount to all aspects of theatrical performance. As the lovers, Syesha Mercado (left) and Adam Jacobs turn in superb performances. Through her strong, lovely voice, polished delivery and body English, American Idol-finalist Mercado's incandescent Ti Moune conveys her character's joy and pain. We sense her aching desire to leave her backwater village for a world of fast, expensive cars; we experience her love and nurture for the injured boy; we suffer when she is cast aside. Jacobs has a thankless job, which he too performs very well. His Daniel is less sympathetic, for we sense that his love for Ti Moune is shallow, of the moment, as is evident when the pull of his social class makes him callously reject her.
The rest of the cast works as a true ensemble. As Papa Ge, Demon of Death, Alan Mingo, Jr., is imperious and unbending, while Aurelia Williams as Asaka, Mother of the Earth, is appropriately warm and welcoming to Ti Moune as she journeys to the Hotel Beaux Hommes in search of Daniel. Darius de Haas and Saycon Sengbloh, as Agwe, God of Water and Erzulie, Goddess of Love, respectively, round out the divine quartet with excellent singing and dancing skills. And as the foster parents of little Ti Moune (played winningly and very competently by Gourtney Harris), Kevin R. Free as Tonton Julien and Kenita R. Miller as Mama Euralie convey a tenderness that helps the child develop into a fine young woman; they even support her on what they know will be a fruitless quest.
Courtney Reed as Daniel's fiancée Andrea is appropriately haughty, while Jerold E. Solomon as Armand communicates a superiority befitting one of the "beaux hommes."
When it opened on Broadway more than 20 years ago, Once on This Island was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Book and Score. Three years later the West End production in London won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. This re-imagined production has retained the magic of the original while fleshing out the show with lush orchestrations and dynamic performances. So take a short vacation at the Paper Mill Playhouse by going to see Once on This Island; it's cheaper than airfare and hotel at a real Caribbean island—and just as satisfying.
Once on This Island will be performed eight times a week, Wednesday through Sunday through June 24 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. For tickets and performance information, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit online at www.papermill.org.
Photos by Jerry Dalia.