Engaging calypso fairy tale unfolds in 'Once on This Island'

Published: Monday, March 10 2014 11:33 p.m. MDT

Malia Nixon and Erica Walters star in The Grand Theatre's Once on This Island.

Steve Fidel

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“Once on This Island,” the Grand Theatre, through March 22, $24-$10, 801-957-3322 or the-grand.org

“Once on This Island” is a delightful musical, brimming with a genuine love of storytelling.

The Grand Theatre performers confidently embrace this show’s charms and stage an uplifting evening about the power of love to bring together people of different social classes. The many talented actors transport the audience to an exotic world, where folk tales are enriched when they tap into the cultural history of spicy calypso-flavored music.

The second collaboration of Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), “Once on This Island” is based on the novel “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy, which in turn is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” (Just don’t confuse this tale with the Disneyfied Ariel; the sacrifice required is more complete in the original.)

The Ahrens-Flaherty team gave us the masterful “Ragtime,” “Seussical” and the smaller, perfectly polished “The Glorious Ones” (a gem yet to be staged in Utah), and their musicalization of “Rocky” is in Broadway previews.

In the spring of 1990, Playwrights Horizons produced this one-act, Caribbean-styled musical, and it received rave reviews and sold out for 24 performances. The following October, “Once on This Island” transferred to Broadway where it had a successful 14-month, 469-performance run.

At the 1991 Tony Awards, with eight top-of-the-line nominations, the musical was understandably winless with potent competition from “The Will Rogers Follies,” “The Secret Garden” and “Miss Saigon.” (Not as surprising, “Shogun: the Musical” was also shut out.) It was later honored in London with the Olivier Award for Best New Musical.

“Once on This Island” is not as smoothly sophisticated as the duo's subsequent collaborations but reflects the work of young, fresh writers who were able to delight while they were still honing their craft. There are few bright standout compositions, but the score includes tender ballads and rousing celebratory numbers.

The story is set on an island in the French Antilles on a stormy night. To deflect their fear of the storm and assuage their fearsome gods, a group of islanders gather under a shelter and calm an upset young girl by telling her a story. As they narrate, the tale comes to life.

Ti Moune (an adorable Malia Nixon) is discovered up a tree by a poor, childless peasant couple, Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian (skillfully played by Angela Trusty and James Titus), and adopt her. In a second storm a decade later, Daniel (Steve Shoemaker) crashes his car and is discovered by Ti Moune, now a young woman and played by Erica Nicole Walter. Naturally, Ti Moune falls in love with the unconscious Daniel — and, after he’s taken back to his estate by his family on the other side of the island, she breaks all native taboos by making her way to his bedside to nurse him to health.

Director Alexandra Harbold deserves much credit for inspiring the cast to such feisty commitment to their characters, and with burly support from music director Kevin Mathie, there are many wonderful voices. The weakness of the production is the lackluster choreography, with numbers too similarly staged and little contrast, dulling their impact.

Walter brings a spirited vitality to the role of the innocent, loving Ti Moune, and she has a strong voice conveying great emotion. She impresses immediately, beginning with her big number, “Waiting for Life,” where she yearns for the future she feels she has been promised by the island gods (“I’m here in the field / With my feet on the ground / And my fate in the air”).

Shoemaker is also a standout with his delicate portrayal of Daniel, and there is great warmth in the melodious “Some Girls” (“You are as wild as that windblown tree / As dark and as deep as the midnight sea”).

A truly maleficent Sean J. Carter, with a wickedly wonderful cackle, plays Papa Ge, the god of death; Angela Chatelain Avilla plays Asaka, goddess of the earth, who has a stirring solo in “Mama Will Provide”; and Ali Bennet is a radiant presence as Erzulie, the goddess of love, who affirms that love is stronger than death.

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