Peasants dance, rich folks strut, and gods meddle in Once on This Island, and an infectious Caribbean-inflected score bounces and soars through a love-and-loss story that tugs gently at the heart. If the Round House Theatre’s production never quite insists that you give in to that tug, it’s still a lively, striking staging, and it seems alive to subtleties that might be easy to miss.
There’s an essential warmth and honesty in this story, adapted by the theatrical team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (of Ragtime fame and Seussical notoriety) from a novel by Rosa Guy: On an island in the French Antilles, the storm-orphaned peasant Ti Moune (Montego Glover) dreams of a life beyond the village. The island’s elemental gods, governors of earth, water, love, and death, answer her prayers with another storm that nearly kills a young grand homme—Daniel, a scion of the wealthy mulatto class whose dominance of the island is just one colonial legacy. In him, Ti Moune sees the purpose behind her own unlikely survival in that long-ago hurricane. To save him, she strikes a desperate deal with the god of death, Papa Ge; to rejoin the still-ailing Daniel after his family comes to take him home, Ti Moune leaves the only world she’s ever known, tracking him across the island to a city as foreign to her as a forest is to a fish.
If the analogy seems apt, it’s because Guy’s novel is itself adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and the derivation should give you a hint at how Ti Moune’s quest will end. In updating the fable, Guy and Ahrens exploit the vividness of African-derived oral-history traditions, framing Ti Moune’s story as a tale told to quiet a frightened child—during, yes, another of those palm-tossing tempests. (Storms, in this show, come to seem a basic metaphor for life’s less steady moments.) And they’re sensitive in the way they incorporate African animist belief: Ti Moune’s final fate, at the hands of those constantly meddling gods, is a particularly expressive bit of plotting grounded in the idea that trees, with their roots in the earth and their branches reaching into the sky, knit together two very different realms. Fueled by Stephen Flaherty’s polished tunes and given substance by its frank treatment of the divisions of class and color, it’s a thoughtful adaptation that lends an almost elemental dignity to the tale.
Director Scot Reese has clearly put some thought into his staging, too. Through-lines, including the text’s infatuation with the ideas of dance and storytelling as threads in the weave of community, come through with commendable clarity, and the narrative, though it hops from story to story-within-story to colonial-history tangent and back again, never gets tangled. The design helps: Daniel L. Conway’s set divides itself neatly into the territories of peasant and urbanite and deity, lighting designer Martha Mountain deftly conjures everything from storms of lightning to the storytellers’ fire, and Johnetta Boone’s costumes assist with subtle cues about each teller’s part in the tale.
Michael J. Bobbitt choreographs the largely sung-through show imaginatively, mixing authentic-seeming Afro-Caribbean moves into a thoroughly up-to-date dance vocabulary, and the cast is confident enough about executing it; whether it’s his work or Reese’s, Ti Moune’s last encounter with the gods, especially, is beautifully realized, with the four deities passing Glover’s slender figure fluidly among them until she’s enfolded in the embrace of Cicily Daniels’ green-clad earth-mother.
What doesn’t always seem beautifully realized is the music. Flaherty can be a transporting composer, and the Once on This Island score bursts with everything from radio-ready R&B ballads (“The Human Heart,” “Some Girls”) to lighthearted calypso story-songs (“Mama Will Provide”) to rousing ensemble numbers—the upbeat opening tune, “We Dance,” the pivotal and positively cataclysmic “Pray,” and the Caribbean-accented gospel shout “Why We Tell the Story,” particularly, are carefully crafted to build to the rafters and bring the audience’s hair along in that direction.
But though the Round House cast seems perfectly competent—Glover’s energetic Ti Moune is particularly charming, while Daniels, Eleasha Gamble, Isaiah Johnson, and Clif Walker make an entertaining quartet of divinities, and the storytellers’ ensemble is fine—not a single song gets through to that subconscious spot where emotional abandon sleeps, curled up and waiting to be shaken awake. Christopher Youstra’s band sounds more substantial than its six pieces, and everyone onstage usually seems to be singing hard and staying focused, so what’s wrong is anybody’s guess. It may be a conscious directorial choice that’s keeping everyone on this side of that electric line; it may be an institutional reluctance to startle the mainstays of Round House’s subscription audience; or it may simply be the much-maligned acoustics of the company’s barn of a Bethesda space. Whatever: In a show so otherwise satisfying, it’s something of a disappointment.CP