Once on This Island
Syesha Mercado stars in the Paper Mill Playhouse's captivating production of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' Caribbean-flavored musical.
Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, the show begins with a group of storytellers attempting to calm down a frightened young child (an adorable Courtney Harris) by telling her the story of Ti Moune (Syesha Mercado), an orphan girl rescued after a storm by a poor old couple, Tonton Julian (a sympathetic Kevin R. Free) and Mama Euralie (a deeply felt Kenita R. Miller).
They live on a small tropical island that is divided between the rich descendants of the original French settlers and poor peasants, whose lives are dominated by temperamental gods, including God of Water Agwe (Darius de Haas), Demon of Death Papa Ge (Alan Mingo, Jr.), Goddess of Love Erzulie (Saycon Sengbloh), and Mother of the Death Asaka (Aurelia Williams).
Ti Moune's desire to understand her purpose and truly experience life piques the interest of the gods, so they wager over whether love is stronger than death by having Ti Moune discover Daniel (Adam Jacobs), a rich and handsome male who is knocked unconscious after a car accident. Against the advice of her tradition-bound parents, she takes care of Daniel day and night.
When Papa Ge comes to claim Daniel in death, Ti Moune offers Papa Ge her own life in order to save his. Even after Daniel is found by his family and taken back to their fancy hotel, Ti Moune journeys to the other side of the island in order to find him.
While Paper Mill Playhouse is a rather large venue for this show, its large emotions -- and the cast's even larger voices -- more than fill the space. (The new orchestrations are by Lynne Shankel.) Bradley Rapier's full-bodied choreography shows off an enthusiastic, celebratory flavor with ritualized movements and striking formations.
Mercado, whose voice is tremendous, is a brave and fiercely determined Ti Moune. Jacobs (who is on a hiatus from his role as Simba in Broadway's The Lion King) manages to make Daniel sympathetic in spite of the character's passive nature. Williams stops the show with the exuberant "Mama Will Provide." The rest of the cast all scores, and Courtney Reed even makes an impression in the small role of Daniel's assured betrothed, Andrea.
Donyale Werle's spare but elegant scenic design is marked mainly by a large scrim, which reflects Kenneth Posner's sharp lighting, along with some wooden structures, clouds made out of cloth, and large and small stick puppets. Jessica Jahn's costumes paint the characters in basic color-coded outfits that are complemented with various other garments and nets.
This show is, in every aspect, simply enchanting.