ONCE ON THIS ISLAND: High Energy on Display at Town and Country

by Walter Bender

Center: Young Ti Moune (Emily Gallagher) hugs her father Ton Ton (Paul Travisano) and mother Mama Euralie (Gem Perkins) center) while grown Ti Moune (Elizabeth Neiman) rises above her. Other “Gossipers” from left to right front are Brianna Cava, Stella Smith, Hannah Jackson, Rachel Elder, Nichole Telesco, Billy Ambrose, Standing l – R are Caitlin Davies, Dara Maginty, Roseanne Enwright, John Wishnie, Ryan Beebe, Rachel Landy, John Wosnie, Tim Tolen, Rachel Elder, Roseann Enright, Brianna Cava, Dana Maginty.

The latest offering from Town and Country Players in Buckingham is the seldom-performed ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, a musical adaptation of the book My Love, My Loveby Rosa Guy. ONCE ON THIS ISLAND incorporates elements of Romeo and Juliet, ancient mythology, and even the fairytale “The Little Mermaid.”

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND tells the story of Ti Moune, an orphaned peasant girl on a fictional island in the French Antilles. The peasant folk on the island worship four gods; Asaka (Mother of the Earth), Agwe (god of Water), Erzulie( goddess of Love) and Papa Ge (Demon of Death.) Agwe unleashes a terrible storm on the island, but the gods save the life of Ti Moune by placing her in a tree. She is found and adopted by Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian, who raise her. Subsequently, the gods conspire for Ti Moune to meet Daniel Beauxhomme, one of the Grandes Hommes, the priveleged class on the island. Danile crashes his car and is severely injured. Ti Moune rescues Daniel and nurses him back to health. Tonton goes to tell Daniel’s father of the crash, and he comes to bring Daniel back to their home. Ti Moune follows them, and stays with Daniel to nurse him to full health. Daniel falls in love with Ti Moune, despite the caste differences, yet cannot marry her, as he is bethrothed to Andrea Deveraux. The finish of the story involves tragedy, magic, and the necessary happy ending for the islanders.

Director Delarme Landes has put together a very high-energy production. Most of the story is told in song and dance, and the cast handles the story well. A large cast of “story tellers” sing, dance, and narrate the story, and seven primary dancers in face paint portray everything from trees to wind to an automobile. The gods are on platforms throughout the production, occasionally “coming to earth” to interact with the characters. The cast makes the most of the comparatively small staging area, moving in and out, literally weaving the story for the audience.

The principal players in this production do a nice job of telling the story. Elizabeth Neiman (Ti Moune) has a beautiful voice, perfect for this style of music, as well as impressive dance moves. Gem Perkins and Paul Travisano (Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian) do very well showing the love for their adopted daughter, and featured songs were handled well. Chris Capitolo (Daniel) did a nice job of showing initial disdain for the peasant girl, and subsequently his growing love, and Nicole Telesco (Andrea) shows a beautiful vocal range. Melissa Mongi, Blair Johnson, Liane Golightly and Tim Tolen have a majestic style as the gods, with Tolen showing off a very sinister laugh as the devilish Papa Ge.

Ti Moune (Elizabeth Neiman) cares for Daniel’s leg (Chris Capitolo, seated center) after an accident while the Island “Gossipers” look on. (Gossipers: (lower) Brianna Cava, Stella Smith, Hannah Jackson, Rachel Elder, Nichole Telesco, Billy Ambrose; standing Caitlin Davies, Dana Maginity, Roseann Enwright, John Wishnie, Ryan Beebe, Rachel Landy.)

The casting of this production is non-traditional, as the original story as well as previous productions emphasize the struggle between the dark-skinned peasants and the lighter-skinned decendents of the original French planters and their slaves. There is a reference in the play to the peasant class being “dark as night”, and Ti Moune’s sacrifice brings these two disparate cultures together. This production concentrates more on the caste struggle, the “haves and have-nots”, which does lessen the impact of the story. I wonder at the decision to lengthen the production to two acts as well…the original production runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. The Town and Country version runs longer (a bit over 2 hours) with one intermission, although the insertion of the intermission is in a very logical place in the story line. Perhaps it is to give the actors a bit of a rest…the energy expended by the dancers in this production is amazing. Kudos to choreographer Cat Miller and Director Landes for bringing the joy of this production to the forefront.

Musically this is a very demanding production…as most of the story is told in song and dance, you need to have very strong musicians, singers and dancers. The small orchestra, conducted by Joe Nappi, did a nice job of keeping the action going without overpowering the cast (which was enhanced by wireless microphones…dangerous, and with the expected fade-out problems, sometimes distracting.) Some of the principals were not quite as strong vocally as I would have liked to have heard, and at times it seemed as if the cast and orchestra were not in sync. Hopefully this will be corrected going forward.

This seldom-perfomed musical is a lovely family fable, and I congratulate Town and Country for producing it. Bring the kids, bring the grandparents, and enjoy this adaptation of some classic tales.

By Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
Adapted from Rosa Guy’s novel, My Love, My Love
June 29-July 14, 2012
Town and Country Players
4158 York Road
Buckingham, PA
(800) 838-3006

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