Can love conquer all?
That’s the question at the center of “Once on This Island,” a joyful explosion of music where a young peasant girl, Ti Moune, falls in love with a man of a different socio-economic standing and follows her heart no matter the cost.
The show, presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company (through April 16) is much more than a sappy love story, though. Class, race, and color shape the story. Ti Moune lives in a modest village where most of the residents are of a darker hue, the well-to-do are fairer skinned, and they revere French ways.
It’s established quickly that the villagers who dance “just to stay alive” endure a challenging existence, but their unrelenting verve pulses throughout the production directed by Pascale Florestal. Florestal, who is of Haitian descent, aspires to develop “theatrical experiences that shed light on the narratives rarely seen on stage.” Here, with the show’s balanced tone, she succeeds. In May at the Umbrella Arts Center, Florestal, the education director and associate producer at The Front Porch Arts Collective and one of the ARTery 25, will direct "The Colored Museum," another narrative that takes a deep dive into Black culture.
Based on the Rosa Guy book “My Love, my Love,” the play was written by the award-winning creative team Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) in 1990 and was nominated for eight Tony awards. The show finally won in 2018 for best revival of a musical. The eclectic duo is also responsible for “Ragtime” and the film “Anastasia,” though “Island” inhabits a different musical universe.
Ti Moune (Peli Naomi Woods) gets saved from a threatening storm by the god Agwe (Davron S. Monroe), ruler of the sea, fish, and aquatic plants. She’s raised in a loving home by Mama (Lovely Hoffman) and Ton Ton Julian (Anthony Pires Jr.). Later, she meets Daniel Beauxhomme (Kenny Lee) after he was severely injured in an accident. Ti Moune nurses him back to health and falls in love despite her parents and the townspeople’s misgivings. Praying to the gods Agwe, Asaka (Yewande Odetoyinbo), Erzulie (Christina Jones), and Papa Ge (Malik Mitchell), Ti Moune asks for help with the direction of her life and this newfound love. Eventually, she must choose between her life and his when Mitchell’s Papa Ge, the god of death, clad in a purple and black brocade jacket and a skull-topped walking stick, makes a proposition.
The music is beautiful throughout, especially when the ensemble dances and sings with icicle-adorned umbrellas in “Rain” or shares the town’s gossip in the clever “Some Say.” And the staccato notes in “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” juxtaposed to the free-flowing, more legato style of music the villagers sing, tells a lot about how different each group is. Still, there are moments of even rarer beauty. Woods, a student at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, absolutely shines as Ti Moune in every scene, especially her heart-plucking, showstopping rendition of “Waiting for Life.” In their duet, the melodious harmonies created by Woods and Lee (who possesses a lovely instrument) were heartening. And, though she only has one solo, Erzulie (Christina Jones), the god of love’s “The Human Heart,” was artfully rendered. The cast’s smooth crescendos and decrescendos is the work of skilled music director, David Freeman Coleman. Jazelynnn Goudy’s choreography is also noteworthy.
“Once on This Island,” with its dynamic characters, movement, and vibrant music, make it easy to understand why it’s so celebrated. The combination of that kinetic energy, the story’s moral of love being the best choice and Florestal’s thoughtful direction make its impact endure.
“Once on This Island” runs through April 16 at SpeakEasy Stage Company.