Written by Broadway vets Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team that also penned Ragtime and Seussical, Once on This Island was produced off-Broadway in 1990, then went on to Broadway for a 14-month run. The music runs the gamut from Afro/Haitian rhythms to some schmaltzy show ballads that sound not a little like some of Ennio Morricone's film scores. The play is a colorful folk tale set on an unnamed French Caribbean island that closely resembles Haiti, and it's filled with music, dance, and pantomime. The twelve-member cast acts as a narrative chorus. The story has to do with a young Haitian woman, Ti Moune, a poor orphan who rescues a well-to-do aristocrat, Daniel, after he crashes his car during a fierce rainstorm. Daniel, unconscious and injured, is whisked back to his family's estate. But Ti Moune has fallen in love with Daniel, and she journeys alone to find him. Slipping into his bedroom at night, Ti Moune discovers that Daniel's wound cannot heal. But Ti Moune, who has traditional healing skills, helps him recover, and they begin a romance. Daniel's aristocratic world is scandalized, and a showdown develops when his long-betrothed fiancée learns about Ti Moune. Daniel, caught between his desire for Ti Moune and his obligations to his family, tries to find a solution, but the forces of love and social convention are bound for a head-on collision.
While the narrative plays out in a simple story theater style, the show delves into an array of serious and complicated ideas. A brief history of the island reveals intermarriage between the French colonial masters and local blacks, creating a mixed-race Creole class, which rules when the French are driven out by the island independence movement. Daniel and others of his class are caught in the dilemma of racial prejudice. Denied acceptance by white society, the Creoles internalize their own oppression by shunning the poor black population. Ti Moune herself, poor, black, and female, is the ultimate outsider, aided only by love and personal integrity against the forces of prejudice, money, and male hegemony. These issues are powerful themes in Once on This Island but are never fully examined in the text.
The production features a lively, vocally gifted cast. Don Seward (playing Tonton Julian, Ti Moune's guardian), with his rich singing voice and natural acting style, is a decided standout. Twelve-year-old soca star Cafidia Stuart, who plays Ti Moune as a girl, belts out her songs like an old pro. The company is aided significantly by fine harmonizing, courtesy of musical director Lloyd Douglas Brockington, and simple, effective choreography by Shirley Julien. Reginald Symonette's eye-catching, Haitian-style costumes feature bold splashes of color, as does Dudley Pinder's lighting design. Harrell's direction is lively, but there's a lack of narrative precision and clarity -- it's often hard to follow what's going on. Some of the characters are native gods and demons, but figuring who's who takes some doing. Part of the problem is Harrell's decision to stage the musical numbers as presentations to the audience rather than as emotional confrontations between the characters. This strategy certainly plays to the company's strengths -- most are better singers than actors -- but the concert-style staging dampens the show's dramatic impact, especially the central romance between the grown Ti Moune (an appealing Cynthia Strachan Saunders) and Daniel (a suave Kevin Johnson). Despite the demands of the plot, this romantic fire never heats up.
A good portion of the problems of clarity must lie at the feet of the production's twin antagonists -- the echoing theater space and a faulty, overamped sound system. The community center hall, with its hard walls and floor surfaces, acts as an echo chamber, and the prerecorded show music, which has been cranked up to overcome the echo, tends to drown out most of the lyrics and spoken dialogue, despite the cast's vocal strengths. Lowering the volume would help as a short-term solution, but a long-term fix would likely involve drapery or baffling.
While the company has some work to do to improve production values, there's no denying its importance as a potential cultural and social resource. Most South Florida theaters target pretty much the same audience demographics, but AAPACT, with its goal of bringing theater to underserved communities, is a refreshing development and a sign of hope.