The set-up: Young children and early teenagers re-tell a Caribbean story of class warfare, with enticing results.
The execution: Applause Theatre is one of Houston's several theatrical gems tucked away in unimposing malls, this one recessed steeply behind a huge car wash. Inside an unpretentious building is a small, comfortable theater with a proscenium stage and tiered seating. This stage at the moment has the color of beach sand, blending into a sparkling blue sea, topped by low-lying clouds on the horizon, a Caribbean island.
And quickly this vista is filled with children and young teen-agers, acting with the poise and assurance that many an adult actor might envy, and having the time of their young lives before an appreciative audience.
The story is of love found and lost, of class warfare between the haves and the have-nots. A young woman of the peasant class brings a well-to-do young man back-to-life, and comes to love him, but loses him to one of his "own kind." Along the way we are treated to a kaleidoscope of color and sometimes elaborate costuming (by Leslie Rhodes), including two hats so arresting they should be in the International Museum of Hats (if it doesn't exist, it should).
Natalie Holley plays the lead role of Ti Moune, and conveys both tenderness and spirit as she travels the road of an iconoclast, daring to think outside the box. Caleb Sepulveda plays Daniel, the restored young man, with easy grace and a ready smile. Brooke Birner plays Andrea, the upper-class lass whom Daniel weds, with a cool beauty, and sings with a clear, compelling voice. Emmanuel Coraza plays Tonton, the adoptive father of Ti Moune, and he has a strong stage presence.
The choreography by Joel Cortina captures the spirit of the island, and the children rise to the occasion, moving with grace and precision - while enjoying themselves enormously. The book and lyrics are by Lynn Ahrens, based on a novel by Rosa Guy.
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The music is by Stephen Flaherty, with the strong Caribbean beat of bongo drums, and drives the action appropriately, while shifting gears to underscore the more plaintive moments. While not all of the large cast have learned yet to project their voices, it's surprising how many have, yet even these are sometimes drowned out by the percussive power of the bongo. The small, unseen band is live, and very good indeed.
The musical direction is by Leslie Rhodes, and the overall direction is by Ryan Cochran -- they have found the charm in this tale and given it life on stage. The lighting design is by Matt Albrecht, and it works well, with some nuanced effects. All of the large ensemble merit praise for bringing their rich, emerging talents to this successful endeavor.
The verdict: A light-hearted fable on a serious theme is well-acted by a young cast. It is certain to delight children, and will appeal to the inner child of most adults as well.
Once On This Island continues through November 1, in a production by Applause Theatre Company at Applause Theatre, 6608 F.M. 1960 W. For information or ticketing, contact 281-440-4111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.