“Once on This Island” kicks off Le Petit Theatre’s 2017-18 season with festive rhythms and sun-soaked colors.
The Caribbean-inspired folktale, directed by Le Petit artistic director Maxwell Williams, is painted with big, broad strokes and a bright palette, though at times the finer details get overlooked.
Set in the French Antilles, this story of star-crossed lovers is based on Rosa Guy’s young-adult novel “My Love, My Love: or, The Peasant Girl,” in turn inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”
The musical adaptation, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Anastasia,” “Ragtime”), enjoyed a successful Broadway run in the early '90s, and is set to return to Broadway in a fall revival.
At the center of the story is Ti Moune (Shangobunmi Durotimi), a young peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel (Luke Halpern), a wealthy Creole boy she rescues from a car crash. Ti Moune’s infatuation is strongly discouraged by her parents and becomes a source of contention among the island’s gods, a quartet of deities who rule the fortunes of the peasants.
The Goddess of Love wants to reward Ti Moune’s desires, but the Demon of Death contends that Ti Moune will come to her senses if confronted with a choice between love or death.
This setup provides a backdrop for some of the show’s liveliest numbers, showcasing a talented cast of singers and dancers.
“And the Gods Heard Her Prayer” features particularly strong performances from Jessica Mixon as the Mother of the Earth and Bryan Demond Williams as the Demon of Death, decked out like a voodoo priest in black tails and a top hat adorned with feathers and bones.
In “Pray,” Ti Moune’s parents, played by Idella Johnson and Robert Diago DoQui, ground the production with sense and sensitivity, torn between their need to protect Ti Moune from heartbreak and misfortune, and their longing to see her happy.
The songs are driven by percussive Caribbean rhythms under music director Emanuel Burke Jr. and highlighted by spirited choreography from Polanco Jones Jr. that combines modern dance and ritual movement. Costumes by Julie Winn are loose and flowing, done up in bright patterns and patchwork — the kind of colorful touches that could benefit Jean Kim’s stark, industrial set design.
The downside to the show’s fablelike approach to storytelling is that big ideas often overshadow the personal moments of triumph and tragedy that drive more conventional narratives.
Beneath well-wrought themes of class distinctions, unscrupulous colonizers and meddling gods, the love story between Ti Moune and Daniel gets short shrift. The couple don’t even really interact until over halfway through the show’s 90-minute run. In true fairytale fashion they fall in love almost immediately, requiring audiences to invest in a love story that’s more “love” than “story.”
The thin development of the relationship undermines the emotional punch of Ti Moune and Daniel’s narrative, and the show’s more heartfelt songs tend to stall the momentum of the upbeat numbers.
Additionally, opening-night audiences were surely distracted by a few glitches — spotty sound, popping mics and a couple of clumsily executed set pieces — that disrupted the charm of the evening.
Still, Durotimi and Halpern, playing Ti Moune and Daniel, hold their own among the talented cast — particularly in “The Ball,” when Ti Moune finally makes her debut among the grands hommes and Daniel must reveal a hard truth.
At its best, “Once on This Island” portrays a young girl struggling against the politics and poverty she’s born into. The resolution, which includes a bit of unexpected magic, is bittersweet, but it’s fitting for this fable of perseverance.
“Once on This Island”
WHEN: Through Oct. 1
WHERE: Le Petit Theatre, 616 St. Peter St.
INFO: (504) 522-2081 or lepetittheatre.com