Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Debuting in 1990, Once On This Island is best described as a cross between The Little Mermaid (Hans Anderson’s original tragedy, not Disney’s softened version) and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set on a Caribbean island. It is based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel My Love, Mt Love or, The Peasant Girl. The story is overseen by the island gods who manipulate the action as part of a bet to see which is stronger: love or death, and follows Ti Moune, a peasant foundling who saves the life of and falls in love with rich boy Daniel. Although their love is real, Daniel is pulled away by the pressures of society and Ti Moune comes to an initially tragic but eventually uplifting and hopeful end.
The story is slight but enriched with details regarding the politics of the two island factions as well as the mythology surrounding the gods. These elements make up a large part of the songs with several of them basically being sung narratives such as the opening We Dance which (like Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof) nicely establishes all social and political aspects of the show in a neat package.
The songs by Flaherty and Ahrens are all good and are well grounded in Caribbean influences. However, there are no real standout numbers and certainly nothing approaching the fun and zest of their later collaboration Seussical (2000) or the richness of their Ragtime (1996). Similarly, the orchestrations are pleasant and evocative as well as no doubt being authentic, but ultimately they are not particularly exciting. The only songs that linger in the memory are the playful Some Say and the brassy Mama Will Provide – although the latter is more memorable for Alex Newell’s belting rendition of it. One assumes that the score is better served when presented with the colourful visuals that the stage show would add.
The cast are all very good and display excellent vocals including Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune, Isaac Cole Powell as Daniel and Merle Dandridge as the evil demon Papa Ge. Unfortunately, since the score and orchestrations offer nothing for the listener to get their teeth into, the brilliant performances on this cast recording seem a little wasted. Like spending eternity on a tropical island, this soundtrack is pleasant and relaxing, but soon leaves one yearning for something a little more exciting and dangerous.
Cast Recording Available from Broadway Records | Image: contributed by Boneau Bryan Brown