Just as the jubilation has begun in Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s award-winning musical Once on This Island (★★☆☆☆), a fierce storm rocks the titular “Jewel of the Antilles,” sending the islanders scurrying for cover.
Opening Constellation Theatre’s 16th season — dubbed a “Kaleidoscope of Connections” — Angelisa Gillyard’s lively staging captures the joy and resilience of these West Indies storytellers.
The cast, under the solid musical direction of Elisa Rosman and Refiye Tappan, and well-supported by Tappan’s six-piece orchestra, form a lovely chorus in opener “We Dance.”
Yet, animating Maurice Johnson’s Afro-Caribbean-inspired choreography, the performers conjure an island feeling that is not necessarily reflected in their surroundings.
The red brick buildings and wrought iron balconies by scenic designer Jessica Alexandra Cancino more strongly suggest the French colonial architecture of Bourbon Street than of any Caribbean locale.
New Orleans isn’t the Antilles, but that’s at least a specific visual to fill our mind’s eye. Kendra Rai’s costumes, on the other hand, convey no specific time or place, or Caribbean island, given the preponderance of long pants and cumbersome-looking shoes and fabrics on the villagers.
If they all do reside in the same village in the Antilles, it’s hard to feel transported there when the characters appear to be from many different places, and the story might be located around the corner from Stanley and Stella Kowalski.
The music takes us there, though. Ahrens and Flaherty’s calypso-flavored score, along with the book by Ahrens, based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love, limns a bittersweet story of star-crossed romance between peasant villager Ti Moune (Kalen Robinson) and mulatto grande homme, Daniel (Emmanuel Elliot Key).
Born of the two different worlds that inhabit the island, Daniel and Ti Moune discover, like so many fabled lovers before them, that divisions of class, means, and background can prove nigh-impossible to overcome if the gods are set against you.
Such is the case for this pair, as the gods of earth, water, love, and death — Asaka (Edima Essien), Agwe (Theodore Sapp), Erzulie (Sydney Johnson), and Papa Ge (Carl L. Williams) — aren’t always in their corner.
The gods are, however, among the show’s more persuasive aspects, thanks to strong performances by the divine quartet, and better-realized styling from the costume department.
As the soul-dealing god of death, Williams especially is adept at adding humor and menace in equal measure to a portrayal that’s key to the story’s compelling climax.
Patrick Leonardo Casimir likewise dashes his portrayal of Daniel’s colonizing ancestor Armand with amusing touches. Ariana Caldwell beams like sunshine as young Ti Moune, the small girl who survives the earlier storm, and, as her guardian Tonton Julian, Deimoni Brewington relays the score beautifully via his sonorous baritone, particularly in the company’s fiery, soulful “Pray.”
Robinson, onstage for most of the show as the grown-up but still innocent Ti Moune, gets off to an inauspicious start with her first number “Waiting to Life” seeming to test, and perhaps overmatch, her upper register.
But the characterization is assured and appealing, Robinson’s voice ultimately stands up to the challenge, and her dancing during “The Ball” provides the evening’s most delightful moment.
The joyful abandon in that scene compensates somewhat for the labored lifts and staging in other dances, and the random Alvin Ailey “Revelations” reference that puts a confusing button at the end of this storm-swept journey to the Jewel of the Antilles.
Once on This Island runs through November 6 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20-55. Call 202-204-7741, or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.
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