‘Island’ is an amiable visit

Flaherty and Ahrens’ musical is serviceable. But despite the presence of gods and magic, it fails to capture the Caribbean spirit.

By Rob Kendt , Special to The Times

February 25, 2005

Like their later masterpiece "Ragtime," Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' lovely 1990 musical "Once on This Island" has an accomplished score, an abundance of roles for talented black triple threats, a final number about "telling the story" and a pivotal role for an automobile.

On the evidence of a serviceably exuberant new staging at International City Theatre, "Island" is likely to enjoy many more days in the sun, even if its happy-face portrait of Caribbean peasantry comes off here more as a soft-serve tropical cocktail than the primal, rafter-shaking hoodoo hoedown it could be.

Gods and magic figure into this fable of star-crossed love between a peasant orphan, Ti Moune (Kalene Parker), and a biracial aristocrat, Daniel (Marc Summers), but the deities — of love (Jammie George), water (Keith Jefferson), earth (Matt Rochester) and death (Curtis C) — feel more theatrical than theological. In this pop-up storybook world, each god gets a song at a relevant point in the narrative. Death gets a reprise.

All this is told in an assured, flowing, presentational style that reflects the shaping influence of the original production's choreographer/director, Graciela Daniele. Director caryn desai accordingly keeps her staging in constant motion across Don Llewellyn's elemental set, painted with verdant patterns by Jeremy Pivnick's lights.

Janet Roston's lithe, folk-flavored choreography convulses the stage, particularly at an elegant ball that Ti Moune turns into a liberating dance fever. It's here that the live-wire Parker shines brightest.

Garbed in Nadine Parkos' bright costumes, the attractive ensemble moves as one in a series of storytelling tableaux. Standing out among the gods are Rochester's edgy earth mother and C's cackling, curl-topped grim reaper, who at times resembles Rick James crossed with a Disney pirate.

As Ti Moune's adoptive parents, Addison Witt and Carol Dennis offer strong support, and Taylor Parks makes a bouncy, precocious Young Ti Moune. Summers' light-skinned aristocrat spends most of the play receding from view, as the untouchable object of Ti Moune's affection.

When he finally steps up to profess his conditional love for her, in "Some Girls," he's extraordinary — a pale, strangely vulnerable figure with a catch in his voice that somehow signals his equivocation.

"Some Girls" stands out for another reason: It's the only selection from composer Flaherty's Caribbean-styled score that we leave the theater humming. The rest of the show's plentiful music, well rendered by conductor Christopher Lavely and his offstage band, has a generic feeling. So do Ahrens' deft but often prosaic lyrics.

Adapting Trinidadian Rosa Guy's novel "My Love, My Love," Flaherty and Ahrens don't lack respect for the ethnic flavors they're sampling. But Flaherty's airy, expansive harmonies tend to evaporate over the percussive backbeat, while Ahrens' large-spirited lyrics are full of the sort of nice-sounding non-images — "Our hearts hear the song," "Deep in your eyes I saw the god's design," "You are part of the human heart" — that give us nothing to grab onto.

A lively splash of song and color, this "Island" makes a nice vacation, but you probably won't write home about it.


'Once on This Island'

Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: March 13

Price: $35 to $45

Contact: (562) 436-4610

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes