Once on this Island
Open Air Regent’s Park | ★★★✩✩
The Open Air’s season begins with Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s gorgeously scored fairy tale rooted not in the European canon of Grimm Brothers or of Hans Christian Andersen but in the Caribbean tradition.
Set in an island jewel of the Antilles archipelago, this 1990 musical, which won awards both in London and New York, tells a tale of two worlds on one island.
There are the dark-skinned peasants who live in forests and the rich lighter-skinned, mixed-race city dwellers — the “grande homme” descendents of the indigenous people and French colonialists. The second group has inherited much of the prejudice of their white forebears and none of the humanity of their black ancestors.
Both groups live under the gaze and according to cruel whim of gods who much like their Greek counterparts mess with the lives of humans for their own entertainment, and here one mortal in particular.
Gabrielle Brooks as Ti Moune (Marc Brenner)
Her name is Ti Moune (Gabrielle Brooks) and we first encounter her a little girl being tossed by a fierce storm before being deposited into a forest on the poor side of the island.
Several years later Daniel (Stephenson Arden-Sodje) from the rich side joins her He was speeding in a car at the time and Ti Moune, now grown up, rescues him from the wreckage, nurses him back to health, and feels sure the reason the gods saved her has, at last, emerged.
Somewhat inevitably she falls for him and he for her but, as Daniel later explains in one of the many lovely songs (Ahrens’ lyrics) there are women who men marry and women who men love. Ti Moune learns that she falls into the second group, which introduces a touch of Shakespearian tragedy to the work.
Ola Ince’s production is terrifically sung and the score is never less than pretty and often gorgeous. Under Chris Poon’s inventive musical arrangements the six-piece band conjure upbeat calypso while leaving room for a funky synth.
For the more emotive sections of Ti Moune’s rites-of- passage story they also generate a sound as luscious as waves falling onto a beach.
Actors scale Georgia Lowe’s copse of metal columns (Marc Brenner)
However, Georgia Lowe’s copse of metal columns resembles the first phase of a building site more than it does a forest and the upmarket reaches of a rich city.
At 90 uninterrupted minutes, both the production and the story feel oddly truncated. But on the chilly evening I was at the Open Air this was more something to be grateful for than a reason to feel short-changed.