Taking home eight Tonys when it first played Broadway in 1991, the musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) is based on the novel by Rosa Guy, "My Love, My Love," which in turn is based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the "Little Mermaid." The timeless story of love thwarted by prejudice comes to vivid life in island colors and rhythms and spins the ending into a vision of tolerance and forgiveness.
Briefly, Ti Moune (Salisha Thomas), orphaned by flood and raised by kind villagers Mama Euralie (Dawn L. Troupe) and Tonton Julian (Berwick Haynes), feels she is destined for something special. When handsome stranger Daniel (Paris Nix) crashes his car near her home, she saves his life with her attentions and even bargains with Papa Ge, Demon of Death (Max Kumangai), promising her life if Daniel is allowed to live.
But Daniel, of course, is from the wealthy Beauxhomme family, of French descent, pale and refined. Ti Moune might win his heart, but she can't overcome generations of prejudice and class distinction to win him as a partner for life. We know all too well how the story must end and grieve again for the sad, seemingly inevitable outcome.
Like "Romeo and Juliet," it's a tale that needs retelling, because it continues to be true — "star-crossed" love, love that can't live free due to social strictures — and urges us to rethink our biases and assumptions, asking for love of all stripes to be accepted and celebrated. "Why We Tell the Story," the final song, reminds us of this important message and even imagines a future in which prejudice has faded, when future generations can love freely, when the sad ending is not inevitable and differences won't make a fatal difference.
"Once on This Island" is the kind of musical TheatreWorks can do well, and here it's done brilliantly, with a superb ensemble and terrific theatrics. The cast of 11 possesses fantastic voices and dance skills and fills the stage with almost non-stop choreography for the entire 90 minutes. Thomas as Ti Moune expertly balances innocence with desire, hope and joy with betrayal and despair, and breaks our hearts with her plaintive, uncomprehending pleas for love. Her powerful voice is matched by her amazing dancing and endless energy. Nix manages to keep Daniel sympathetic in spite of betrayal, partnering well with both Thomas and his other love, Andrea (Michelle Cabinian).
Troupe and Haynes are perfectly suited to their parenting roles and deliver a touching trio with Thomas in "Ti Moune." Kumangai is marvelous as the Demon of Death, snake-like and evil. All ensemble players — Rotimi Agbabiaka, Safiya Fredericks, Omari Tau, Adrienne Muller and Khalia Davis — are equally talented and energetic. All are amazing and fascinating to watch as they inhabit numerous roles and ceaselessly dance the non-stop, breathtaking choreography of Gerry McIntyre. It's actually difficult to single performers out, since they work together so seamlessly and beautifully.
The ensemble is supported by an ever-changing set by Joe Ragey, with moving platforms, trees, columns and backdrops — filling the Stern with colorful spectacle. Costumes by Cathleen Edwards attractively suit the time and place, delineate character with simple pieces and enable surprisingly quick changes. The use of masks for gods and for skin color is particularly effective. Jeff Mockus' sound design doesn't miss a beat with all the shifting of vocalists within a number, and we can clearly hear performers over the lively pit orchestra led by the incomparable William Liberatore.
Don't miss this outstanding production, one of the rare occasions when every aspect of a performance comes together stunningly. Kudos to director Robert Kelley and his team for knocking this one out of the park.
What: "Once on This Island," book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through March 30, with shows 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday; and matinees 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Cost: Tickets range from $19 to $73; special discounts for under-30, educators, seniors
Info: Go to www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.