Early in the colorful Tony Award-winning revival of Once on This Island, we learn what differentiates the upper-class grand hommes of this French Antilles fantasyland from the darker-skinned impoverished peasants they have shunned. The upper crust have their money, their steady flow of rich tourists, their fine champagne, their Frenchified style and their mastery of their own fates. The peasants in this jewel of the Caribbean? They have their religion. They pray to the gods of earth, water and love who rule their lives — along with the demon of death.
They remain remarkably upbeat despite finding themselves at the mercy of merciless deities: “And if the gods decide to send a hurricane … we dance!” Or so they sing.
In her adaptation of Rosa Guy’s book My Love, My Love, Lynn Ahrens and her peasant islanders retain their sunniness even though they live and narrate a tragic tale. Shimmering with steel drums and assorted Caribbean percussion, Stephen Flaherty’s score is on the same radiant page. After the opening “We Dance” cited above, even the most dramatic songs, like “Pray” and “Forever Yours,” almost always have an up-tempo episode. As “Some Say” hints, you’re blessed if you merely end up “in a story or a song.”
For the plucky islanders, the glass is always at least half full. Ti Moune arrives near the home of Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie as wee girl, perched up in a tree after the storm and tide that washed away her native village deposits her there. Tonton and Mama adopt her as soon as they confirm that she can speak. Instead of fretting over or mourning her ancestors, Ti Moune grows up thinking that her miraculous survival signals that the gods have a special purpose for her.
It comes when Daniel Beauxhomme comes riding along during another bad storm and crashes his car on the beach. While the smitten Ti Moune is desperately nursing Daniel back to health, Papa Ge — the demon of death — comes to claim him and break her heart. Ti Moune shocks the demon by offering up her life in exchange for his. Love beyond love.
The story that plays out afterwards — with echoes of Little Mermaid, Romeo and Juliet, and a couple of choice pagan myths retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses — breaks Ti Moune’s heart anyway. At this most vulnerable moment, she has a second grim encounter with Papa Ge, and once again thwarts the demon. After that, we see that, in a hopelessly endlessly downtrodden way, Ti Moune truly is a favorite of the gods. Especially if being in a song and a story is sufficient proof.
You can’t replicate the campfire configuration of Circle in the Square, the Broadway theater where This Island was revived, so the intimate community feel of the show hasn’t made it intact to Belk Theater, where the show opened on Tuesday and will run through Sunday. But there’s a storytelling vibe in Ahrens’ book and 10 storytellers in director Michael Arden’s touring production. Scenic designer Dave Laffrey also provides a considerable amount of audience seating onstage at the fringes of his ramshackle set, and Arden adds a whirl of pre-show activity and buzz from his actors.
I suspected that the onstage spectators were plucked from the rear of the uppermost balcony, for I didn’t spy many other empty seats on opening night. A full house also nurtures that community feel, and word-of-mouth will no doubt extend the welcome of this cheery, warm-hearted entertainment.
Complementing the ramshackle scenery are the makeshift Clint Ramos costume designs, enabling the peasantry to transform into gods simply by accessorizing. The most amusing transformation occurs when Kyle Ramar Freeman dons his Mother of Earth skirt as Asaka. But make no mistake, Jahmaul Bakare as Agwe and Cassondra James as Erzulie have no less flair as the God of Water and the Goddess of Love. Arden’s concept seems to want the gods both ways, earthy peasants and mighty deities at the same time.
Ahrens and Flaherty chime in well with this transparently folkloric attitude. “Some Say” offers multiple variants on how Ti Moune survived the arduous journey across the island to the grand hommes’s stronghold — implying that religion is storytelling, but so genially that few will realize their values are being challenged.
Breathing life, hope and a sunburst of energy into all this Caribbean mythmaking is UNC School of the Arts grad Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune, dressed in flaming red from the moment she makes her star entrance, supplanting the precocious MiMi Crossland (alternating with Mariana Diop) playing the toddler Ti. Carter brings us the simplicity of Ti Moune’s purposefulness and the steadfast power of her conviction. “I know this,” she tells the villagers who advise her against nursing Daniel back to life: this is why the gods placed her here.
Carter belts her climactic ballad compellingly, though “Forever Yours” isn’t really special melodically, and when Papa Ge’s intrusion quickens the tempo just as a recovering Daniel has joined Ti Moune in duet, Carter’s “take my life — my soul — for his!” is heart-stopping and fearless. Tamyra Gray as Papa Ge gets the last fiendish cackle in this song and proves to be a formidable adversary, relishing her macabre stealth and her monstrous ashen costume.
Recumbent, recuperating and rejecting, Michael Ivan Carrier never quite gets the chance to show us that Daniel is worthy of Ti Moune’s epic adoration. Get over it. Carrier does get the chance to show us he’s more textured than most Prince Charmings. Similarly, Ahrens and Flaherty provide meatier roles for Ti Moune’s adoptive parents than you’ll see for parents or stepparents of most Cinderellas and Sleeping Beautys. In “One Small Girl” and “Ti Moune,” Philip Boykin and Danielle Lee Graves demonstrate that Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie are as much the soul of the island as the gods.