Review: OSF wonderfully tells story of how love doesn’t always go where one might like

Ciera Dawn and ensemble in "Once on This Island." Jenny Graham photo
May 1, 2022

20 musical numbers move along the tale of what did — and didn’t — happen ‘Once on This Island’

By Lee Juillerat for Ashland.news

Love doesn’t win in the usual way in “Once on This Island,” but the sacrifices of a peasant girl who offers, gives and genuinely lives love are requited in a more enduring manner.

“Island” is a briskly paced, one-act musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and the novel, “My Love, My Love,” by Rosa Guy. It’s being sumptuously staged at the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

It’s a story of a tumble of emotions — love, pain, faith, hope, grief and dreams. After a young orphan girl survives a thunderous flood because the island’s gods take pity on her and place her in a tree above the flooding waves, she is told the story of Ti Moune. In the tale, much as in Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” an older Ti Moune rescues a handsome, entitled young man, Daniel. While helping him recover, she falls in love and believes that he, too, loves her.

Chuckie Benson, Camille Robinson, Michael Wordly and Phyre Hawkins in “Once on This Island.” Jenny Graham photo

But Ti Moune lives on the poor side of Haiti, where the peasants are “black as night.” Daniel and those on the other side of the island are lighter-skinned descendants of the French Beauxhommes who intermingled with other Haitians. The two subcultures, Ti Moune is told, live separate lives.

Enamored with love for Daniel, a “grand homme,” she defies the rules, crossing to the forbidden side of the island where she nurses him back to health and, through her dancing, wins the friendship of the other-side islanders. But when she learns that Daniel is engaged in an arranged marriage, a commitment he will honor, she is devastated.

Throughout the play, much of the narrative is told and expressed through music and dance. As Daniel tries to explains to Ti Moune in the song, “Some Girls,” “some girls you marry, some you love.”

Song and dance, along with staging, are among the many strengths of “Island.” More than 20 musical numbers tell and move the story that, like Greek tragedies, is spiced and complicated by the dealings and manipulations of the gods. In “Island” there are four: Asaka, Mother of Earth; Eruzulie, Goddess of Love; Agwe, God of Water; and Papa Ge, Demon of Death.

In some musicals, the songs are temporary diversions. In “Island,” they are paramount — and delightful, with such mood-varying examples as “One Small Girl,” “Discovering Daniel,” “Forever Yours,” “Waiting for Life,” “Some Say,” “When We are Wed,” “Forever Yours” and two finales that express the longer lasting virtues of Ti Moune’s love, “A Part of Us” and “Why We Tell the Story.”

Directed by Lili-Anne Brown with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, “Island” features an all-Black cast. While the acting is uniformly excellent, young Ayvah Johnson, whose youthful exuberance is evident in her singing and dancing, is especially endearing as Little Ti Moune. Likewise, Ciera Dawn visually and vocally displays the varying moods of older Ti Moune.

A single criticism, one I later learned was shared by others, involves the sound. With the sometimes overpoweringly loud music, trying to understand words being spoken and sung was challenging and occasionally impossible. It’s a problem that can and hopefully will be rectified.

In “Island,” Ti Moune’s love for Daniel is not consummated. But the gods take pity when she offers her life in exchange for his and, because she loves him so completely, not using the knife given to her by Papa Ge to murder Daniel. Instead, they allow her to drown peacefully and, more everlastingly, transform her into a tree, a place where a peasant girl and Daniel’s son play together and the legend of Ti Moune’s endearing and enduring love lives on.

“Once on this Island” is, ultimately, a story about the power of love.

Email freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net.

“Once on This Island”

Performed in rotation at the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through Oct. 30. The one-act musical, which is performed in an hour and 35 minutes, is set in Haiti. It debuted on off-Broadway in 1990 and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 1995. For tickets and information, call the OSF box office at 800-219-8161 or visit osfashland.org.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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