Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once on this Island is the last show of the Jubilee’s 30th season, and it marks new artistic director Tre Garrett’s directorial debut at the theater. It’s an auspicious one to be sure. Garrett, returning to a show that was also his first professional experience in theater, brings a strong sense of heart and flair to the 1990 one-act musical that is a reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid with elements of Romeo and Juliet thrown in for good measure.
The racial/class divide on the unnamed Caribbean island pits the wealthy (read French or French descendants) against the natives/peasants. Orphan girl Timoune (Kristal Jemerson) falls in love with the aristocratic scion, Daniel (Stephen Warren), but as she is from the wrong side of the tropical tracks their love is doomed.
Since the simple folk still pay allegiance to the gods, we get to experience the awesomeness of Papa Ge (Akron Watson recently of the stupendous The Shipment at Undermain), Asaka (Shela Williams), Euzrlie (T.K. Bell), and Agwe (the rich and velvety-voiced Marcus M. Maudlin). Kudos to Barbara O’Donoghue’s colorful, comfortable-looking, patterned, and inspired costumes for mortals and non-mortals alike. Musical director, Mark Miller elicits some sky-high harmonious singing from the cast with Warren being the only slight exception, but this is probably a testament to how good the rest of the actors are in this regard.
Jemerson, with “her most beautiful smile,” delivers equal parts of breathtaking and heartbreaking emotion to her role. Brandon Burrell and Patricia E. Hill (amazing voices both) are stalwart as her adoptive parents. Watson’s portrayal of the death god summons quite a bit of evil good characterization and sinuous, otherworldly movements to his character. Bill Hass as Daniel’s father, Armand, is a great posh foil for the young lovers to rebel against.
It’s too bad that the chemistry between Jemerson and Warren leaves a lot to be desired; however, all of the other elements of the play more than make amends for any shortcomings in this area.
George Miller utilizes the most of limited space to craft a multi-leveled, versatile tropical locale. Faced with the same constrictions, Samille Palmputs together some incredible dance choreography and dancers Savannah Jackson, Tyrice Robinson, Orlexia Thomas, and Tre’onne Williams execute it with funky, ooh-inducing abandon.
Photo: Buddy Myers for Jubilee Theatre