Why They Tell the Story: Once On This Island

Guest Review by Robert Neblett

Stroll into Jubilee Theatre‘s playing space for its current production of the Caribbean-flavored musical Once on This Island, and the cast greets you with warm smiles, firm handshakes and tender hugs before you reach your seat.  A wonderful, welcoming feeling of community pervades the performance of the final show of the company’s 30th season and signals a new era in the company’s development.

Based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel My Love, My Love, the Tony-nominated 1990 musical by the team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (of Ragtime and Seussical fame) is a tropical voodoo retelling of The Little Mermaid. A young peasant orphan named Ti Moune saves the life of a wealthy mulatto boy named Daniel, falling in love with him in the process. Protected by the island gods who want to test whether love is more powerful than death, she ventures to the city to prove that her devotion can overcome the biting cultural prejudices that rule the island.

Jubilee Theatre's Once On This Island

Ti Moune’s story is the central conceit of the musical and part of the island’s mythological tapestry. We watch it unfold as a group of village storytellers share the tale in order to calm a small child’s fears of an approaching storm. In one of his only missteps, Jubilee’s new artistic director Tre Garrett, who lavishes an incredible amount of love and vision on this production, either eliminates this inciting incident altogether or perhaps just doesn’t make it as clear as it should be. Some confusion results as the show progresses, since the script repeatedly returns to a framing device that never got established effectively.

Song and dance birth the tale of the young girl Ti Moune (Kristal Jemerson), willing to trade her life for that of stranger Daniel (Stephen Warren) who has captured her heart. Samille Palm’s athletic, African dance and rhythm-infused choreography beautifully accompanies the storytelling techniques that Garrett stages with minimal props and maximum imagination. Garrett added a chorus of young dancers (Savanah Jackson, Tyrice Robinson, Orlexia Thomas, and Tre’onne Williams) to the cast whose presence lifts the entire evening, filling in some minor awkward gaps that exist in Ahrens and Flaherty’s otherwise tightly woven text. Special commendation goes to Robinson, whose deft moves and infectious smile added a transcendent dimension of jubilant celebration to the evening.

Although the musical was intended for performance without intermission, director Garrett inserts an unnecessary interval (perhaps at the pleading of Jubilee’s concessions manager) into the play’s action. I encourage  reconsideration of the placement of the text division so that the show-stopping “Mama Will Provide” ends the first act; the current ‘interruption’ after the Faustian “Forever Yours” seems abrupt and leaves the show heavily weighted in its second half.

Standouts among the cast include Brandon Burrell and Patricia Hill as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents, Akron Watson as the Demon of Death Papa Ge, and Marcus M. Mauldin as water god Agwe. Each plays his or her role with a clarity of character and strength of voice that show off the strengths of this musical’s transcendent melodies and haunting emotional impact.

Akron Watson, Stephen Warren, Kristal Jemerson

Kristal Jemerson plays Ti Moune’s childlike qualities with great charisma, but would better serve the role if she balanced these qualities with a sense of the role’s emerging maturity; her wide-eyed innocence might be more palatable if we saw the raw pain of first love emerge more clearly.

Stephen Warren, as Daniel, gives the cast’s weakest performance, as if he were sleepwalking sometimes. His disconnected portrayal’s stiffness and painful lack of dimension make it difficult to understand what Ti Moune sees in him, which undermines the credibilty of Jemerson’s performance and the script’s overall story arc. For example: in the ebullient number “Waiting for Life,” Ti Moune gets entranced by Daniel speeding across the island in his Mercedes. Rather than choosing to play the aloof entitlement of his class and focus on his careless joyriding (perhaps tempered by a fleeting hint of being caught off guard by Ti Moune’s beauty), Warren plays the moment with a sappy, painted-on grin and superficial Queen Elizabeth wrist wave.

George Miller’s scenic design is inventive, expansively providing multiple levels of sand dunes, palm trees, and ocean sky within the intimate Jubilee space. Costumes by Barbara O’Donoghue are simple yet effective, easily delineating characters from one another and adding lush tropical style without excess trappings. Ceremonial headdresses constructed for each of the island’s gods are uneven. A gorgeous George Clinton-esque mane branches toward the skull atop Papa Ge’s blood-and-night outfit, while Agwe’s headgear could do without the bizarre glowing tendrils that appear borrowed from a Sharper Image fiber optic lamp.

Of all technical elements, only the sound design by David Lanza seems intrusive. This musical’s atmosphere is driven by Flaherty’s brilliant, atmospheric score – with the chirping of frogs actually sung by actors. It doesn’t need any enhanced accompaniment of frog sound effects in the background. Outside of creating the thunder crashes it’s overkill to add any extraneous sound effects – wind, insects, frogs, rain or cars (the simple “Honk! Beep beep!” written rhythmically into the music’s lyrics does the trick more than adequately).

Jubilee Theatre's cast performs "The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes”

Jubilee Theatre’s Once on This Island is not a perfect production, but it shows such energy, soul and desire to create a strong sense of community in North Texas theatre you can’t help but be won over by its infectious spirit. It’s a memorable, dynamic introductory statement by Jubilee’s new artistic director Tre Garrett. Expect highly creative, entertaining productions from him in the future.

Special Note to Jubilee’s Management: As you move into the next thirty years of your growth in North Texas, please realize that it is important (and legally required) to acknowledge a play’s authors and licensing agency in your show programs. Also, please check the spelling of character names and song titles, as well – i.e., “The Sad Tale of the Beast” is a far cry from “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes.”

Guest reviewer Robert Neblett is a local dramaturg, director, and actor with a PhD in Comparative and Dramatic Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.

Photo Credit: Buddy Myers

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4 thoughts on “Why They Tell the Story: Once On This Island

  1. For someone with such harsh critiques maybe you should double check your review for “spelling of character names” too. From my understanding while watching the show Papa Ge is the “God of Death” and you didn’t even spell Ti Moune right in your 4th paragraph. I’ve been attending show’s at the Jubilee Theatre for a few years now and no matter how long the show’s are they have always had a 15 minutes intermission as a courtesy to the audience. Thus allowing those who can not sit for long periods of time without stretching the opportunity to move around and those who have small bladders the chance to use that bathroom. Jubilee’s theatre is a very intimate setting and does not allow mobility during the performance. I will continue attending the Jubilee Theatre and giving them my support. That being said perhaps you should go back, this time with an open mind, and review them again.

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  2. Ms. Long,

    I am frankly surprised by the negative tone of your comments, because my review is overwhelmingly positive regarding the overall production, with the exception of some lackluster elements, that other reviewers in the DFW area have also noted in their reviews (most notably, the performance of Stephen Warren). The misprint of Ti Moune’s name in the fourth paragraph was an editorial misunderstanding on the part of Ms. Bonifield, for whom I am guest reviewing as a professional courtesy while she recovers from a serious injury. I have alerted her that “Ti Moune” is the character’s full name and she has agreed to make that adjustment in the review as it appears on this page. I maintain that this tiny error that appeared in the edited version of this review pales in comparison to the persistent misspellings of character names and song titles and the omission of the creators of this wonderful musical in the printed programs that are distributed by Jubilee’s box office staff.

    I am intimately familiar with the libretto of this musical. In fact, I actually played the role of Papa Ge many years ago. In the score of the show, Papa Ge introduces himself as the “sly demon of death” in the opening number, “We Dance.” My reference to him was a direct quote of the show’s lyrics.

    And regarding your comments about the intermission, the play is actually written to be performed without an intermission. Legally, the company should not even be allowed to insert an intermission anywhere during the performance without express permission from Music Theatre International (MTI), the licensing agency that controls the performance rights. My comments merely suggest that, if you do perform the show with an intermission, that it should be placed in a more appropriate place to support the dramaturgical structure of the show.

    I am a big fan of this musical, and I am a fan of Jubilee’s production. But it is my job as a critic to point out weaknesses in a performance, and those opinions are completely subjective. I am eager to see what Tre Garrett does in the 2011-12 season and beyond. I think this is the dawning of a new era for Jubilee, but I also feel that such a turning point must be undertaken with caution as the company grows into a professional theatrical force in North Texas.

    Thank you for your comments, and I hope you will continue to follow Alexandra Bonifield’s blog, even when she is reviewing other companies in the area.

    Robert Neblett, PhD
    Guest Reviewer

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  3. Pingback: Tuesday Morning Roundup | Art&Seek | Arts, Music, Culture for North Texas

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