Stunning Once on This Island A Perfect Distraction From the Book at TUTS

The Company of the North American Tour of Once On This Island.
The Company of the North American Tour of Once On This Island. Photo by Joan Marcus
Knowing that a touring production, like the Once on This Island touring production, sprang forth from a show that nabbed a Tony Award for Best Revival in 2018 could certainly raise some expectations, get some hopes up. But it appears the production, here in Houston courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars, came ready to not only meet but exceed any expectations, hopes, whatever.

But let's start at the beginning.

Once on This Island opens on, well, an island in the French Antilles, where an oncoming storm scares a little girl with its intensity. The people around her attempt to distract her with a tale they share about a young girl, found orphaned after a storm. The girl, called Ti Moune, grows into a young woman with her head always in the clouds, wondering what her purpose is, why she was saved all those years ago. Ti Moune calls on the gods for an answer and the gods – of water (Agwe), earth (Asaka) and love (Erzulie) along with a “sly demon of death” (Papa Ge) – respond in quite the interesting way. They orchestrate Ti Moune’s meeting with a young man, Daniel Beauxhomme, whom she rescues after a car accident. Immediately, she falls in love with him, even pledging her life to save his.

The problem – because there is always a problem – is that they come from worlds apart. Ti Moune is a peasant, while Daniel is a descendant of the French aristocrat/colonizer (white) who was run off the island by the son he had with an island woman (black), a man who (on his way out) cursed all his descendants with internalized racism.

If I tell you that Lynn Ahrens (who wrote the book and lyrics while Stephen Flaherty composed the music) was inspired by the 1985 book My Love, My Love, or The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, which itself was a retelling of “The Little Mermaid” – the Hans Christian Andersen, not Disney, version), can you guess where this is going? Even if you can, director Michael Arden heads up this fast-paced, never-lets-up production, which gives you no time to think too hard about what’s coming. It's compact and relentless at 90 minutes with no intermission, relying on the skills of everyone involved to keep this clearly well-oiled machine going, starting with the actors.

Courtnee Carter brings a charming naivety and buoyant spirit to Ti Moune, not to mention a soaring voice and wow-worthy ability to burn up the dance floor. Seriously, “Ti Moune’s Dance” is easily the highlight of the show, the culmination of Camille A. Brown’s crazy dynamic choreography and the kind of number you wait for, giddy with anticipation.

Once on This Island focuses on Ti Moune’s (and therefore Carter’s) journey, but enough can’t be said about the strength of the performers that surround her.

Phillip Boykin and Danielle Lee Greaves are the epitome of homey comfort and loving, open arms as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents. Tyler Hardwick’s Daniel follows a trajectory that sees Hardwick go from aloof to ultimately ineffectual with a brief stop in the land of infatuation. And then there are the gods.

Jahmaul Bakare is a powerful, steady presence as Agwe, lending his resonant voice to multiple songs throughout the show, and Kyle Ramar Freeman, as Asaka, gives the production its first truly show-stopping number with Asaka’s “Mama Will Provide.”

click to enlarge Kyle Ramar Freeman as Asaka and Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune in the North American Tour of Once On This Island. - PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS
Kyle Ramar Freeman as Asaka and Courtnee Carter as Ti Moune in the North American Tour of Once On This Island.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Cassondra James graces each scene with a Glinda the Good Witch-type benevolence as Erzulie. She sounds absolutely lovely singing “The Human Heart,” and equally lovely are the melodies she brings to several numbers with her flute. And as Papa Ge, Tamyra Gray is a predator on stage. She slinks, stalks and attacks, her menacing rasp ruthlessly stabbing through scenes for maximum impact.

Throw in an uber-cute kid – Mimi Crossland – for good measure, and there’s not much to complain about here.

The set these actors populate, by the way, is nothing short of stunning. Scenic designer Dane Laffrey’s vision for the set can be described with words like salvaged, and makeshift, but it’s a chameleon too – adaptable, responsive, and able to roll with the punches (or beats) of the story. (The creativity in the making and unmaking of a car in one scene is particularly memorable.)

Clint Ramos’s costumes offer pops of color, their vibrance contrasting well with the hunks of scrap metal, duct tape, and torn tarps around the set. Like the show, which eases into its beginning, cast members out on stage already in character as audience members trickle into the theater, Ramos eases his characters – namely, the gods – into their costumes and the evolution is certainly a sight to behold.

Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer are responsible for the lighting designs, which range from solid and reliable to fluorescent and dramatic, with a memorable little shadow theater history lesson given beautifully. Peter Hylenski’s soundscape (adapted for the tour by Shannon Slaton) is robust, particularly with all of the “found” instruments and all the diegetic (if you will) sound. The musicians, under music supervisor Chris Fenwick, reside on the second level of Laffrey’s two-tiered set, which in and of itself provides an added layer of richness to the production.

It’s worth noting that audience members populate the stage, sitting mostly as a group on one side. It’s probably a very cool experience if you’re one of them, but from the audience it doesn’t appear to add anything to the production. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to make anything worse either.

This touring production of Once on This Island is top-notch, but the constant movement and Flaherty’s calypso-inspired rhythms can only distract from Ahrens’s distressing book for so long. Ultimately, there’s a reason Disney changed Andersen’s ending when they made The Little Mermaid, so when you transpose themes such as institutionalized and internalized racism, colorism, and a caste system on top of his story and keep his ending – well, it comes with a sense of – as the woman behind me said when Ti Moune’s fate is revealed – “that’s not right.”

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Through March 1. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $40 to $129.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.