MILLBURN, NJ – “Once on This Island” tells the mythic story of a love between a nobleman and a peasant girl.
The play, loosely based on “The Little Mermaid,” has a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty.
A child, Ti Moune, is discovered by an elderly couple, hiding in a tree to escape from a storm on this island in the French Antilles. The couple adopts her. As Ti Moune grows older, she comes across Daniel, who has been injured in a car accident. She brings him back to health and the two fall in love. But Daniel is from the other side of the island, where the wealthy people dwell. Throughout the play, four gods play major roles: Earth, Water, Love and Death. Ti Moune follows the course of love.
When Daniel returns to his home, once again Ti Moune finds him and learns he is lame. She cures him again. However, their ‘happily ever after’ future is not acceptable to the ‘landed gentry.’ Despite loss and longing, the play has an uplifting and spirited ending.
The 90-minute production is mostly sung and danced, with just enough dialogue to move the story forward. It’s all done with great imagination and flair, sometimes with masks, at other times with giant cardboard figures representing the two classes on the island. Scenic design is by Donyale Werle.
The cast is loaded with talent, especially Syesha Mercado as Ti Moune. Mercado made an impact on “American Idol" during its seventh season and has performed in the American Idols Live! Tour. Her “Waiting for Life” shows her terrific range and power. She also delivers a sultry, exotic dance for the wealthy Beauxhommes family.
But there are quieter moments, too. Adam Jacobs as Daniel has a melodious quality and he and Mercado are beautifully matched in “Forever Yours.” He also shines in the high-energy “Some Girls.”
Alan Mingo Jr. as the Demon of Death is incredibly expressive, with fierce, haunting eyes and a cunning demeanor. Darius de Haas is God of Water, while Aurelia Williams plays Asaka, Mother of the Earth. Saycon Sengbloh is the Goddess of Love. The Storytellers join in with a beautifully rendered “And the Gods Heard Her Prayer” and “Rain.” It all comes together with “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes” and colorful visuals. The play definitely picks up in the later portion, when the contrasts between the two sides of the island are vividly seen.
Courtney Harris plays Ti Moune as a child, while Kenita R. Miller and Kevin R. Free are warm and convincing as the older couple who find her and bring her into their home.
The Caribbean beat is present throughout this musical, nicely augmented by the orchestra, conducted by Lynne Shankel. Bradley Rapier provides the dazzling choreography and the entire show has been directed seamlessly by Thomas Kail.
When the musical ran on Broadway in 1991, it garnered eight Tony nominations and went on to receive the 1995 Olivier Award in London for Best New Musical.
“Once on This Island” continues at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through June 24. For tickets, call 973-379-3636
or visit PaperMill.org.