With book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, Once On This Island is a musical of pedigree. After an original Broadway run, its 1994 West End production won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical and its recent Broadway production the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. In its Brisbane outing, Altitude Theatre not only brings its Broadway musical majesty to the intimacy of La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre thanks to some clever staging, but also elevates audience immersion through the high calibre of its performances.
The brisk one-act musical, which is based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love, or the Peasant Girl by Trinidad-born American writer Rosa Guy, is a loose Caribbean retelling of the story of “The Little Mermaid”. However, it also draws upon many well-known story tropes of the star-crossed lover sort, settling its audience into an expectation that is ultimately subverted. On a fictional Caribbean island in the French Antilles, the young and frightened orphan Ti Moune (Adelaide Arkins and later Lorinda May Merrypor) is saved by the Gods from a deadly storm. She is delivered like a gift from the sea to the peasant couple Ton Ton Julian (Henry Kafoa) and Mama Euralie (Asabi Goodman). While happy, Ti Moune grows up dreaming of the glamour of the island’s grand upper class, who are descended from the French colonisers who exploited the local indigenous people. When the fearless Ti Moune falls in love with Daniel Beauxhomme (Conor Putland), heir of the island’s most prominent family, their love its tested by their differences and others’ disapproval. In the background, meanwhile are four temperamental Gods who rule the Jewel of the Anitilles: Asaka, God of the Earth (Garret Lyon), Agwe, God of Water (Rhys Velasquez), Ezrulie, God of Love (Patrice Tipoki), and Papa Ge, God of Death (Vidya Makan), which leads to a wager as to whether love or death will prove to be stronger.
The show’s score represents different musical styles, which adds interest. The songs are infectiously rhythmic thanks to the persuasive accompaniment, including from of Alvin Rostant on steel drum. Under Kuki Tipoki’s musical direction, lively orchestrations draw on many indigenous instrumentations allowing sounds of Hawaii, New Zealand, The Philippines, West Africa, the Caribbean, Australia and, even, Mayan Aztecs to fill the space. When the show opens with ‘We Dance’, in which we are introduced to the island where rivers run deep, the musical sensibility is reminiscent of the opening ensemble number of “Come From Away”, with voices blending in perfect harmonies. It’s a comparison that is reflected also in the production’s efficient staging and versatile use of a simple set to clever effect, with wooden pallets moving together or apart in representation of the story’s communities. All aspects of Bree Langridge’s direction, from deftly swift movement, engaging choreography and singing, come together to enliven the storytelling. Ella Lincoln’s costume design also serves to elevate the aesthetic experience, especially in creation of the gods.
As with the creatives, the collective force of the ensemble supports many outstanding individual performances. The diverse cast showcases the highest calibre of vocals, singing with great beauty, but also tremendous gusto. All are allowed their moments to shine. From when she bursts forth in slick transition from her younger character self, Merrypor gives us times of light and shade in her portrayal of passionate protagonist Ti Moune. Her singing voice is simply lovely. Kafoa and Goodman do a fine job playing her adoptive parents, bringing humanity to a story the has joyfulness alongside anguish. Goodman’s voice, in particular, in beautifully controlled, showing impressive power in the moving ‘A Part of Us’ explanation of how the Gods have allowed Ti Moune’s story to live on. Putland makes for a charming Daniel, delighting in the differences between Ti Moune and the other girls in his life in the romantic ‘Some Girls’. And as the compassionate God of the Earth, Lyon, the steals the show with his fierce ‘Mama Will Provide’ assurance to Ti Moune.
Although its essential story is of a girl in search of her place in the world, ready to risk it all for love, the enchanting musical fairytale of Once On This Island is very much an ensemble piece, which aligns with its themes of hope and love, and its emotional connection. While its songs are enjoyable in their moments, they don’t necessarily resonate afterwards. What does prevail, however, is the joyousness of its experience, which feels like a warm and tender hug. Indeed, Once On This Island is polished, poetic and emotionally rich storytelling that reinforces Altitude Theatre’s place as a new company of excellence.