"Once on This Island" is a rare chance for Vancouver audiences to experience the first Broadway production penned by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who went on to create Ragtime, Seussical and Anastasia, among many others.
The tale is framed as a fable, told by the villagers on a Caribbean island in the French Antilles, about the ill-fated love between Ti Moune, a humble village girl, and Daniel, a member of the island's ruling elite. While the casting of the original production showed a clear division of class and race between the white-skinned power structure and the darker-skinned villagers, this production blurs those lines by mixing and matching skin tones (and genders) - and yet, in doing so, makes just as strong a statement about the arbitrary nature of prejudice.
This is the most ambitious effort yet for this plucky young company, and they manage to make the most of the small space and limited resources to deliver a show that is colouful, touching and full of humor and heart.
There's plenty of vocal and dance talent on display, with standouts including Brianna Clark as Ti Moune, bringing a clear and powerful voice and an engaging stage presence. A dance highlight is her appearance at a fancy dress ball. After a series of stumbles due to the shoes she is unaccustomed to wearing, she tosses them away and launches into a mesmerizing dance to a percussive drum rhythm.
Four gods look on, comment and sometimes intervene in the action. Sari Rosofsky as Papa Ge, the Demon of Death is a sinister yet playful cross between goth-girl and Catwoman. I also was impressed by the strong vocals and presence of Ricardo Pequenino as Agwe, the God of Water, and wished we saw and heard more of his character.
The five-piece band brought a strong and textured sound. The performance I saw suffered a bit from audio balance issues, with soloists and dialogue sometimes hard to hear over the music. Some sound effects were also a bit muffled, which reduced their effectiveness. But overall, things were clear and the melodic tunes and vibrant harmonies – along with the inventive and colourful costumes – shone through.
"Once on This Island" runs through Saturday, April 14 at the Red Gate Revue Theatre on Granville Island.