- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

Downtown Baltimore gets a welcome blast of tropical heat with the sun-struck production of the musical “Once on This Island,” a calypso variation on “The Little Mermaid,” re-imagined by composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Seussical,” “Ragtime”).

Inspired by Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel “My Love, My Love,” “Once on This Island” transplants the Hans Christian Andersen story to an island in the French Antilles, where its rueful romance is complicated by class differences and distinctions of skin color within the black community.

Directed with boldness and verve by director-choreographer Kenneth Lee Roberson, the production blazes with the spicy colors and rhythms of Caribbean culture but goes deeper than tropical eye candy.

Neil Patel’s set — a glass-and-tin hothouse structure — skillfully uses the saturated hues and exotic flora we associate with the islands but also allows ample room for imagination. Fancy theatrical effects are eschewed in favor of a simple storytelling approach, inviting the audience to participate in the colorful action and such musical set pieces as “Rain,” “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes” and the spiritual theme of the show, “We Dance.”

The story revolves around Ti Moune (Trisha Jeffrey), an orphan girl taken in by village elders (played with warmth and earthy generosity by C.E. Smith and Gayle Turner) after a violent storm. Ti Moune grows into a guileless and willful young woman who rushes toward her kismet after falling in love with a lighter-skinned aristocrat, Daniel (J.D. Goldblatt). This star-crossed romance has its pitfalls, but it leads Ti Moune to a greater destiny, one that has profound resonance for generations of islanders.

The story is intensified by a potent spirituality in the form of four Caribbean gods — Erzulie (E. Faye Butler), the goddess of love; Asaka (LaVon Fisher), the earth mother; Agwe (David St. Louis), the god of water; and Papa Ge (Christopher L. Morgan), a trickster death figure. These vibrant voodoo creatures control fate, not from on high, but by moving freely and intimately among the people who worship them. Especially impressive are the fluid and forceful gestures of Mr. St. Louis’ Agwe; Miss Fisher’s gloriously robust portrayal of Mother Nature; and the sly, sinuous moves of Mr. Morgan’s Papa Ge.

Mr. Roberson’s staging swirls with movement and compelling native dance, particularly in Ti Moune’s solo during a high-class island ball — a dance that is both innocent and impassioned. Miss Jeffrey possesses a powerhouse singing voice and deftly executes the non-Broadway-style choreography as Ti Moune, making her sweet but not cloying. Similarly, Mr. Goldblatt gives Daniel a subtle aristocratic air without overdoing the snootiness. His solo, “Some Girls,” is a highlight, sung with a mixture of lightness and regret.

Emilio Sosa’s costumes are a Mardi Gras unto themselves. Bursting with eye-popping color and design, the floral and bird-patterned capes sported by the ensemble are visual showstoppers. The costumes, the music’s infectious island rhythms, and the affecting story combine to make “Once on This Island” a parade that satiates the senses and the emotions.

***

WHAT: “Once on This Island” by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

WHERE: Centerstage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 22.

TICKETS: $10 to $65

PHONE: 410/332-0033

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