Once on This Island
Reprise kicks off its season with a virtually flawless and totally exhilarating production of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Caribbean-inspired musical.
As directed by Billy Porter, the emphasis stays firmly on the storytelling and the depth of true emotion, thus imbuing the production with a stylish simplicity and tremendous charm. Add an outstanding cast, design team, and musical and dance support, and this becomes a virtually flawless production that demands repeat visits and undisputed recognition come awards season.
The musical is a loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid with some Romeo and Juliet sprinkled on top. Orphaned as a child during a terrible storm, young Ti Moune (Kristolyn Lloyd, making a solid Los Angeles debut) believes the gods saved her life for a reason. When Daniel (an impressive Jesse Nager), a wealthy young man from the other side of the island, is mortally injured in a car crash during another storm, Ti Moune strikes a deal with Papa Ge (the powerful Bryan Terrell Clark), Demon of Death, to save his life. This, she believes, is why she was spared in childhood -- so she could save Daniel. But of course, her ensuing romance with him ultimately brings tragedy, and while Papa Ge must claim what was promised, the manner and outcome are both unexpected and poignant.
Porter and choreographer Bradley Rapier keep a lovely island easiness to the show. You can practically feel the Caribbean heat and drenching rains in Driscoll Otto's enormously evocative lighting design. (The thunderstorms are particularly impressive, and are well-accented by Philip G. Allen's sound design). John H. Binkley's simple, two-leveled set allows the island gods -- Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Ledisi); Agwe, God of Water (Leslie Odom, Jr.); Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Vanita Harbour); and Papa Ge -- to observe their handiwork from above.
Costume designer Anita Yavich has dressed the entire cast in variations of cool, free-flowing whites that are then adorned, as needed, by colorful, character-specific accessories. Since most of the actors play multiple roles, this simple touch is effective, beautiful, and adds another level of cultural essence to the show. Indeed, such cleanness and simplicity is clearly the hallmark of this production. Hand-held single palm fronds become trees whipped by the tropical storms; a pair of flashlights in Nager's hands easily indicate he is driving when the storm hits, and their wild play as he navigates Rapier's clever choreography tells the story of what happens when the car veers out of control.
Vocally and physically, too, no challenge goes unmet. Lloyd and Nager find romantic harmony together and convey their individual moments of disappointment, heartbreak, and grief with restraint and refreshing straightforwardness. Clark's Papa Ge is both terrifying and nerve-wrackingly funny; it is impossible not to watch him whenever he is on stage.
The rest of the cast also show great versatility and flexibility in their various roles and actions. And there are several moments of song and dance that bring ecstatic cries of approval and appreciation from the audience, most notably Odom's "Rain," Ledisi and company in "Mama Will Provide/Some Say/Waiting For Life," Harbour's "The Human Heart," and Nager's "Some Girls."