You have to hand it to the producing team of Tom McCoy and Cathy Rigby for putting “Once on This Island” on stage at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. After almost three seasons of sticking to warhorses like “Annie Get Your Gun and “On Borrowed Time,” the Caribbean-flecked musical with its all-black cast seems almost like daring programming. The uneven production at La Mirada shows both why this show is beloved and why it remains relatively obscure even after a 1990 run on Broadway.
The story, from a novel called “My Love, My Love” by Trinidadian Rosa Guy, was beautifully adapted by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), who also wrote the score for the much anticipated version of “Ragtime” opening Sunday at the Shubert Theatre in Century City.
Compared to the epic “Ragtime,” “Once on This Island” tells a small story. It is as elemental as a fable and is set on an island in the French Antilles. The musical focuses tenderly on Ti Moune, an orphan girl found clinging to a tree after a storm. Adopted by two loving peasants, Ti Moune becomes the object of a bet between the goddess of love (Rachel Luttrell) and the god of death (Harrison White), who send her on a journey of the heart.
Ti Moune (Tonya L. Dixon) rescues a handsome boy from a car wreck. Cradling him in her arms, she instantly feels she has found her purpose in life. He is Daniel (Seth Sharp), the son of the island ruler. Ti Moune follows Daniel home to the big city, where they consummate their love. But Ti Moune is a humble peasant in a world filled with prejudice. Her story is destined to be tragic; the gods have ordained it.
The musical is staged as a story told by a group of people to a young girl, played by the winning Ashley Perry, who also takes the part of the young Ti Moune. “Once on This Island” tells Ti Moune’s tale of love, devastation and rebirth while using her also as a symbolic heroine. The moral of “Once on This Island” is that the act of storytelling is essential in understanding other people’s lives and in forgiving them their sins. Once we have done that, we learn also to forgive ourselves. As a conceit, the show has a breathtaking simplicity. But what is simple can seem banal if not handled just right.
Director Gerry McIntyre fights a battle with banality and a too-large stage, but he does score some impressive victories by the end of the show. A member of the original New York cast, he approximates Graciela Daniele’s staging, which features continuous movement, a pleasant swirl of hip-swiveling choreography. He also re-creates the splashy costume design in bright colors, midriffs and frills (by Thomas G. Marquez). But in the first half of this intermission-less evening, McIntyre barely contains a mutiny of over-acting, led primarily by Deborah Sharpe as Ti Moune’s adopted mother.
Once Ti Moune leaves her home and goes on her journey toward the big city, the cast seems to settle down into the story, and the show picks up immeasurably. Her journey is guided by Asaka (Shawana Kemp), the goddess of earth in a great, rousing number called “Mama Will Provide.” Kemp wakes everyone up as she vows her fierce protection to a favored daughter bravely making her way through unknown terrain.
Once Ti Moune and Daniel are reunited, Erzulie, the goddess of love, serenades the pair with a sweet ballad called “The Human Heart,” which describes the lovers’ sensation of floating in eternity. Luttrell sings it directly and without affectation, just as a goddess should.
Ti Moune’s story culminates in a jolting emotional ride--from tragic plunge to joyous rebirth--that is remarkably well handled. Ahrens’ lyrics are smart, simple and emotional, and Flaherty’s music is jubilant and tender. As Ti Moune, Dixon is lovely and she sings and dances gracefully, though her acting range could be broadened. As her younger self, the pint-sized Perry is fun to watch and seems to feel infinitely comfortable on the stage.
“Once on This Island” is wise about the ways in which we use drama. Even though the gods determine Ti Moune’s fate, the musical reminds us that we all write our own biographies, that “our lives become the stories that we weave.” All the while it weaves its own story with marvelous movement and with heart.
* “Once on This Island,” La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends June 22. $33. (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.