ONCE ON THIS ISLAND Opens Willows Theatre Main Stage on

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND: Musical Fantasy by Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Eric Inman, musical Direction by Patt Parr, and choreography by La Tonya Watts. Willows Theatre, 1925 Diamond Blvd. (in the Willows Shopping Center), Concord, CA. (925)798-1300 or www.willowstheatre.com.

This is the second time the musical fantasy Once on This Island graced this stage and it is an excellent choice for the grand opening of their newly revamped Willows Theatre Main Stage in Concord that was forced to close over a year ago. It was due to lack of financial backing and never a question about the quality of their productions.

That quality is again evident at Friday night’s opening. After weeks of rain in the Bay Area it was a relief to attend an effervescent, colorful, joyful production of Once On This Island that received eight Tony Award nominations in 1991 and the winner of a 1991 Olivier Award for Best Musical in the West End, London. Authors Ahrens and Flaherty have since continued their stage success with Ragtime and Suessical.

The story is based on the book My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy who adapted the plot from the fairy tale The Little Mermaid. Astute librettist Ahrens recognized the inordinate possibilities of setting the scene on a mythical island in the French Antilles, thus allowing Stephen Flaherty to fashion music with a Calypso beat while she crafted lyrical words to relay the story. It essentially glorifies generational story telling with commentary on social prejudice and its affect on love. The Caribbean conflict is with the rich, fair-skinned Grand Hommes on one side of the island professing superiority to the darker-skinned peasants on the other.

In this setting, Ti Moune (Khalia David) as a young girl (Sara Miller) is washed up into a tree during a storm and rescued/adopted by Mama Euralie (LeNeac Weathersby) and Tonton Julian (Kieleil-Deleon Frazier) on the peasant’s side of the island. A cadre of Island Spirits/Gods controls the destiny of the islanders. They are: Erzulie, the goddess of Love (Tracy Camp), Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Linda Dorsey), Agwe, God of Water (Michele laniro), and Papa Ge,The Demon of Death (LaMont Ridgell). They stir up a trouble by throwing Together the young lovers Ti Moune and Daniel (Trevor Moppin) a rich kid from the other side of the island.

Ti Moune falls in love with Daniel whom she saved and nursed back to health after he has had a severe auto accident. When he goes back to his own kind, her love compels her to take a precarious journey into the rich people’s enclave. There she learns that Daniel is marrying Andrea and she is evicted from the enclave and dies of starvation and a broken heart.

In this ensemble musical there are many highlights starting with the exhilarating “We Dance” to the finale of “Why We Tell a Story.” Linda Dorsey is a pure professional who can command a stage and does so with her “And the Gods Heard Her Prayer” and later with “Mama Will Provide.” Her little daughter Sarah Miller captures the audience in her brief but key roles. Both Kieleil Deleon Frazier and LeNeac Weathersby are perfect pair; both statuesque and believable as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents. As the Gods control the people within the play, the actors in those roles are allowed broad acting rights. Their acting is not all equal and you will be unable to your eyes from LaMont Ridgell as Demon of Death in his black costume radiating evil with the gestures of a magician

For this production, there is a real live band in the pit (Pat Parr, Rich Fongheiser, Ske Atman) and they produce a foot stomping calypso beat. This is not always good since they often compete with the singers, especially since the over amplification of the voices interferes with understanding the lyrics. Laura Berggren’s fascinating fantasy set complete with oversized Georgia O’Keefe type flowers, Latonya Watts’ choreography for her 14 bare footed dancers and Eric Inman’s fluid direction all add to Ahren and Flahertys lyrics and music. Running time about 40 minutes an act plus a 15 minute intermission.

Recommendation: *** of five stars. (Four of five stars with correction of the sound levels)

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreworldinternetmagazine.com