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.
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.
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 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