Light-footed charmer ‘Once on This Island’ opens breezily at Olney Theatre Center


Olney Theatre Center presents the Caribbean-infused family musical ‘Once on This Island,’ featuring James T. Lane as Papa Ge (Demon of Death) and Aisha Jackson as Ti Moune. (Stan Barouh)

“Once on This Island” at the Olney Theatre Center is a burst of spring, a warm 90-minute fairy tale told to breezy Caribbean rhythms. This is the 1990 musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and while they would go on to write bigger shows such as “Ragtime” and Broadway’s current “Rocky,” “Island” remains a light-footed charmer.

The story comes from Rosa Guy’s book “My Love, My Love,” and it starts in a storm shelter as a small girl cries in fright. The thing to do is comfort her with a story, of course, which blooms onstage with song and dance.

This musical’s plot has been compared to everything from “Little Mermaid” to “Romeo and Juliet,” and it also has a streak of “Cinderella.” Race and class rear their ever-threatening heads on a small island when a black girl named Ti Moune rescues Daniel Beauxhomme, a light-skinned young playboy from the privileged class. What barriers can true love cross?

Flaherty’s music nimbly sets up the show’s world of storms and gods, and director Alan Muraoka efficiently cuts the broad stage at Olney down to a simple central wooden ring that contains most of the action. (The six-piece pop band, firmly anchored by percussion and electric bass, are underneath the stage.)

The catchy melodies make “Island” a good show for singers, and if Nicholas Ward’s rich delivery of “Rain” is a standout (Ward plays Agwe, god of water), the vocals are mostly solid all night. The opening number is “We Dance,” and Darren Lee’s African-Caribbean choreography keeps the show appealingly on the move through ritual incantations and the inevitable ball, where Ti Moune finally learns whether or not she and Daniel are meant to be.

Ti Moune is a fairy tale princess, and Aisha Jackson fits the bill: She’s winningly upbeat and determined, and her authoritative performance of Ti Moune’s dance solo at the ball is the most impressive moment of the night. But then Lee’s choreography, full of sinuously twisting hips and feet that hit the earth solidly, generally looks good on this nicely balanced cast.

With a little make-believe, the set by Milagros Ponce de Leon shifts easily from the opening storm shelter (with lights flickering ominously at the top of the show) to a wind-blown island of trees and debris. The storm theme seems to have informed Helen Huang’s colorful makeshift costumes, too. There is a calming simplicity at work; Muraoka’s show never strains for effects.

Kids are a key target here: This is part of the Olney’s new family series, and the evening curtain time for this swift, lively show is a bedtime-friendly 7 p.m.

Once on This Island

Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Alan Muraoka. Musical director, Darius Smith; lights, Marc Hurst; sound design, Jeff Dorfman. With Eymard Cabling, Ariel Cunningham, Theresa Cunningham, Shelby Renee Fountain, Fahnlohnee Harris-Tate, Jessica M. Johnson, Wendell Jordan, Kellee Knighten Hough, James T. Lane, David Little, Duyen Washington, and Stephen Scott Wormley. Through May 4 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. Tickets $32.50-$65. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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