It’s easy to enjoy the calypso sound and tropical setting of “Once on This Island,” but the Center Stage production isn’t exactly paradise. Although an enthusiastic cast and some clever staging make the island stay worthwhile, director-choreographer Kenneth Lee Roberson is unable to make the admittedly episodic narrative cohere. The stop-and-go pace seems even choppier due to an onstage band that occasionally overwhelms the vocalists, problems with amplification and a pervasive sense that the colorful spectacle is barely under control.
One can revel in the energetic music, lively choreography, bright costumes and exotic story. However, gradually the sensual appeal is offset by the feeling that all the multicultural elements aren’t coming together in a musical that originated with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” which in turn was the basis for Trinidad novelist Rosa Guy’s “My Love, My Love.” That became the basis for the 1990 musical with pleasant if generic music composed by Stephen Flaherty and functional lyrics and libretto penned by Lynn Ahrens.
The mythic story concerns a dark-skinned girl, Ti Moune (Trisha Jeffrey), whose orphan and peasant status ensure societal disapproval when she falls in love with a light-skinned aristocrat, Daniel (J.D. Goldblatt). What cohesiveness this production has owes a lot to these thesps’ warm performances.
Other performers embodying an array of human and divine characters have assertive moments, thanks to Roberson’s alert choreography, but it’s the two leads whose emotional conviction is a constant amid the otherwise halting proceedings.
Many of the supporting cast members sport such thick Caribbean accents, however, that their patois is nearly impenetrable.
Providing consistent pleasure is a relatively minimal stage design by Neil Patel that proves to be a nurturing environment, thanks to his spare references to architecture and vegetation; this set is lit in a sultry manner by David Weiner.
Costume designer Emilio Sosa and other production team members collaborate on beautiful if scattered bits of stage poetry. The loveliest moment of visual splendor is in the song “Rain,” as the vibrantly dressed performers wield blue-hued umbrellas from which hang streamers evocative of tropical showers.
It’s too bad the sound design overseen by Garth Hemphill isn’t quite as easy on the ears. The competent band, conducted by musical director Darryl G. Ivey, sometimes rides its percussion-intensive calypso beat on top of vocalists who don’t stand a chance. There also were problems with untrustworthy stage microphones during the perf reviewed.
The rich-boy-meets-poor-girl story manages to survive these aural mishaps, but it doesn’t exactly triumph over them.