- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

Feeling landlocked this summer? Longing for an island breeze? Relief is as close as Bethesda’s Round House Theatre and its swirling, stirring production of the 1990 Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical “Once on This Island,” directed with spirit and a sense of spirituality by Scot Reese.

Although set on a French Caribbean island (atmospherically conjured through Daniel Conway’s set of woven bamboo panels, a paper-lantern sun and totem-pole fruit trees) and featuring tropical rhythms and vibrantly patterned costumes by Johnette Boone in the colors of exotic fruits, “Once on This Island” is no mindless trip to the beach.

Adapted from Rosa Guy’s novel “My Love, My Love,” — which was, in turn, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Little Mermaid” — this is a musical with a beat and a conscience.

The story of a peasant girl named Ti Moune (Montego Glover) who falls in love with the handsome Daniel (Griffin Matthews) of the ruling class explores issues of social prejudice, the caste system and color hierarchy.

The upper-class islanders are deemed “better” because of their lighter skin, while the peasants are disdainfully described as “blackened by the sun” and from toiling in the fields. Serious overtones cast fingery shadows across this sunny show, but in an organic way that never overwhelms the Caribbean rhythms of the music or the tingle of the central love story.

The overriding theme of “Once on This Island” is “love conquers all” — but not in the way you might expect. Ti Moune does not walk off into the sunset with her beloved but instead shows that love can defy anything, even death and the gods that dally with the lives of the peasant islanders.

In this world, the poor are ruled by fear and superstition and by their gods — Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Cicily Daniels); Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Eleasha Gamble); Agwe, God of Water (Isaiah Johnson); and Papa Ge (Clif Walker), Demon of Death. These four mythic creatures decide the weather, who will live and who will die, and who will thrive and who will barely eke out a living.

The story of Ti Moune is told ingeniously, as a fireside tale to comfort a little girl (played by Alexandra Brooke Perrin and Dorean K. Collins) during a terrible storm. At first, Mama Euralie (Beverly A. Cosham) seems to be telling a typical Cinderella story with a happy ending. All the elements are there: an orphan girl — Ti Moune — who was spared for a mysterious purpose, the princely young man she saves.

Yet Ti Moune’s story grows in richness and resonance as the fairy-tale ending is eschewed for a resolution that is briefly tragic but ultimately redemptive. Ti Moune may sacrifice herself, but her act unites social classes in future generations. Besides, who wants to be a princess when you can be a metaphor?

Mr. Flaherty’s score is both simple and lush, embracing the music of the French Antilles but also throwing in a classic Broadway ballad here and there — in particular, the spare loveliness of “Some Girls,” Daniel’s solo that describes the women you marry and the women you love with gentlemanly discretion. “The Human Heart” is another charged emotional number, this time a full-throttle celebration and lament on the vagaries of love, delivered with goddesslike power by Miss Gamble and her fellow deities.

The more traditional island melodies give the beat-happy cast ample opportunity to strut their stuff, including “Rain,” with a forceful solo by Mr. Johnson, as well as the narrative lilt of “One Small Girl,” featuring vocals by Miss Cosham and David Emerson Toney that convey the depth of their feelings for their foundling Ti Moune with great delicacy and care.

Miss Glover’s Ti Moune gets off to a patchy start, with conviction taking the place of perfect pitch, but her confidence grows in the second half, and she reaches emotional heights with clarity. Miss Glover is such a powerhouse that she nearly swamps Mr. Matthews as Daniel, who has a lovely, lighter-than-air singing voice but seems distant and wispy in the role.

“Once on This Island” takes you on a tropical journey that touches on the value of storytelling and passing down history. It also seems to tell us that no matter how modern and progressive we think we are, class matters and continues to prevail.

***

WHAT: “Once on This Island,” book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty

WHERE: Round House Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through July 3.

TICKETS: $40 to $48

PHONE: 240/644-1100

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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