Sunday, March 9, 2014

"Once on This Island" ☼ ☼ ☼

They sing, they dance, they tell a story and they smile. What's not to like?

It's hard to fault the cast or the direction in Theatreworks' new setting of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's 1991 Tony-winning "Once on This Island." Scenic Designer Joe Ragey gives us several eye-popping scenes, including pulling out a huge blue sheet which members of the cast wave up and down to simulate the flood with which this folk tale begins. He throws in some very cool rain too, made from black umbrellas and silver tinsel.

Music: live orchestra. Can't beat that. Choreography (by Gerry McIntyre, who has spent years involved with this show): also commendable, if hampered by a smaller-than-Broadway stage.

Singers: first rate, especially Safiya Fredericks as Asaka, Dawn L. Troupe as Mama Euralie and Berwick Haynes as Tonton Julian.

So back to the original question: what's not to like? Nothing. The show is likeable and entertaining.

But what's to love? For this reviewer, the musical form of happy islanders laughing and dancing their lives away was co-opted by Walt Disney a generation ago. The stage, bedecked in prime colors and cutouts of palm trees, looks suspiciously like The Little Mermaid, though admittedly without Disney's egregious treacle. This would be fine if the music were more interesting.

"Once on This Island" was Ahrens and Flahrety's first musical. The pair went on to write many big shows, including "Ragtime" and "Dessa Rose." Here, they miss no musical cliches: steel drums, calypso chord changes, congas and island percussion -- but beyond this there is little to grab on to. The show's most significant song is the stunning closer: "Why We Tell the Story," which is performed with pure voices only.

We love that the issues of racism and wealth disparities, signified by the very first song: "Two different worlds, never meant to meet..." -- are dealt with. We particularly love how members of the black cast put on white face masks to simulate the lighter-skinned island bourgeoisie, then cast off the white faces when they want to dance and have a good time. This would give Walt Disney a sour stomach.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Once on This Island" Three Stars. It is worth seeing, especially if you are a die-hard musical lover. The Opening Night audience seemed to love it. We would have loved to have heard those biting lyrics given some meatier, more memorable music. We particularly enjoyed the dance between Death (Max Kumangai) and Love (Adrienne Muller).  Strangely, every time Death came on stage (shown below with Salisha Thomas as Ti Moune) the show's energy ramped up a notch.

"Once on This Island"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through March 30

Photo credit: M. Kitaoka and T. Martin

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