Sorry, Mr. Disney. There is more than one way to popularize and update classic fairy tales.
Sorry, Mr. Disney. There is more than one way to popularize and update classic fairy tales. Ariel or Flounder are nowhere to be found in the Skylight Music Theatre’s Once on This Island, a musical version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. And—slight spoiler alert—the story doesn’t end with evil banished and two lovers reunited.
Instead, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty hew closer to the darker side of the original story, but also translate its story of doomed love into the real world of class and racial divisions.
It’s quite a tightrope to walk, but director Bill Theisen and his impressive cast embrace the fairy-tale magic of the story without sacrificing its political bite. There is no reason to wonder, to paraphrase the show’s stirring finale, why they tell the story.
There is no mythical mermaid in this story, which is set in an unnamed Caribbean island very much like Haiti. Instead, Ti Moune (Kanova Johnson) is one of the island’s dark-skinned natives, who one day saves the life of Daniel (Sean Anthony Jackson), one of the upper-class, light-skinned inhabitants, who live their lives walled off from the natives. The two are smitten, and so the play’s Romeo & Juliet storyline is set—but with an added Faustian twist. The “death god,” Papa Ge (Bill Jackson) was counting on receiving Daniel’s spirit, and so he demands a soul in exchange. Ti Moune agrees to sacrifice her own life—whenever Papa Ge calls for it–to save that of her newly beloved.
It sounds rather shadowy and somber, but there is nothing dark in Theisen’s ebullient staging, buoyed by the vibrant set (Ken Goldstein), costumes (Loyce Arthur) and lighting (Annmarie Duggan). The soloists are excellent, but the musical highlights here are Flaherty’s high-energy choral arrangements (music direction by Shari Rhoads), a crowd-pleasing blend of West Indian syncopations and Broadway belting.
The vocals are so powerful, in fact, that I wondered if the voices might have been able to fill the Cabot Theater without the help of wireless microphones. When you have talented singers like Johnson, Lee Palmer, and the formidable Raven Dockery—and a relatively small orchestra (lead by Rhoads)–why not let them raise the roof on their own? But that’s only a small quibble with a production that should be seen by anyone who wants a thoughtful, but dazzlingly warm, trip to a magical but all-too-familiar land.