It was ironic that while a violent storm ravaged a Caribbean island in the opening scene of Once on This Island, Hurricane Maria was battering Puerto Rico in real life. Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre presented the Afro-Caribbean musical, and its scenery in the wake of the story's storm was much more uplifting than scenes in Puerto Rico, as islanders in the play emerged wearing vibrantly colored costumes amid a profusion of tropical vegetation framed against a cobalt sky.
The original Broadway show, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, was nominated for eight Tony Awards. The show is an adaptation of Rosa Guy's novel, My Love, My Love: or, The Peasant Girl, and based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. The moral of the fable is essentially that love between social classes ultimately will fail. Andersen revised his dismal ending to be more hopeful, but in 1837, even divine intervention could not alter the social order.
Paris Robertson plays the young Ti Moune ("little orphan"), who is rescued after the storm and adopted by Mama Euralie (Idella Johnson) and Tonton Julian (Robert Diago DoQui). Several years later, Daniel Beauxhomme (Luke Halpern), a gentleman from the wealthy landowners' side of the island, crashes his car near their village. Ti Moune (Shangobunmi Durotimi) nurses him back to health and falls in love with him. Warned by her parents that Beauxhomme will never propose marriage, the girl clings to the impossibility that true love will prevail. The relationship between Ti Moune and Beauxhomme appears pleasant and sincere, but he wants her to become his mistress. "Some girls you marry; some you hold," he sings.
Flaherty's rhythmic calypso music is formulaic and not particularly French or Caribbean, though Ahrens' poetic lyrics elevate his score. Nevertheless, this production's singers, dancers and musicians threw themselves into the mythical tale with wild abandon and sang their hearts out. Dynamic sister singers Jessica and Whitney Mixon gave high-voltage performances while Johnson and DoQui played Ti Moune's loving, protective parents. Polanco Jones Jr. boosted the show's energy with African-inspired choreography.
Kathleen Moore, who recently played a singing dinosaur in Triassic Parq, portrayed Andrea Devereaux, Beauxhomme's intended bride, as mean instead of merely entitled. In truth, an elegant Creole lady never would have been in competition with a pretty peasant.
The gods — Erzulie (Taylor E. James), "Goddess of Love"; Agwe (Kebron Woodfin), "God of Water"; and Asaka (Jessica Mixon), "Mother of the Earth" — propelled the show. Inventive costumes by Julie Winn spiked the Caribbean punch. Papa Ge, "Demon of Death," who tries to convince the desperate Ti Mourne to end her own life, was quirky in tails and a top hat covered with feathers and a skull.
Once on This Island fails to make a serious statement about the class divide, getting lost in romantic fantasy, but the audience was so well-entertained, it seemed not to matter.