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Review: ‘Once on This Island’

Jews and Christians are fortunate to have a single almighty God who — with the notable exception of Job — doesn’t capriciously treat them like lab rats. Not so the Afro-Haitian peasants who are playthings for the powerful loa voodoo gods they worship in Paliku Theatre’s beautifully staged production of “Once On This Island.”

The show, a hit on Broadway in the early ’90s, is the story of a bet between Erzulie, the loa of Love, and Papa Ge, the dreaded loa of Death, that love is stronger than death. Their plaything is Ti Moune, a peasant girl who has prayed to them that she may meet a grande homme, a member of Haiti’s wealthy elite. They grant her wish but do so in such a way the man will die unless she agrees to die in his place.

The story is a musical adaptation of Rosa Guy’s novel, “My Love, My Love,” in which peasants and grande hommes are separated not only by their economic status but also by skin color. The grande hommes are the light-skinned descendants of 18th-century French planters and their female slaves; the peasants are as dark as their African ancestors.

At Paliku, the racial half of the story is cast aside and only the issue of rich and poor remains. Tori Anguay (Ti Moune) looks more like Beyonce than an Afro-Haitian peasant. Fortunately, she is right for the role in all other aspects — she’s an engaging actor, beautiful vocalist and show-stopping dancer. “Ti Moune’s Dance” is one of the best numbers in Act II and a good reason to request seats down front so it can be appreciated at eye level rather than from higher elevations.

Christopher Lowe (Pape Ge) is a powerful malevolent presence. He makes dark, dramatic highlights of “Forever Yours” and “Promises/Forever Yours (Reprise).”

Alison Maldonado (Mama Euralie) and Leonard Villanueva (Tonton Julian) are delightful as the adoptive peasant parents who caution Ti Moune against her obsession. Yvette Umi Sua’ava (Asaka) has a wonderful showcase in “Mama Will Provide” as the benevolent loa who promises to ensure her survival on the arduous trek from one side of Haiti to the other. Kaili Delos Santos (Little Ti Moune) earns applause in the dual role of young Ti Moune and another young girl who is being told the story many years later.

Miles Wesley (Daniel Beauxhomme) has little to work with in the thankless role of a rich man who enjoys the attentions of the infatuated peasant girl without telling her he is going to marry a wealthy light-skinned woman of his own class. This may explain why there is little chemistry between Wesley and Anguay; we feel her intensity but no commitment from him.

Beauxhomme leaves it to his fiancée — played with perfect icy condescension by Briana Pratt — to tell Ti Moune in front of a ballroom full of people that he will be marrying another woman.

If this were another type of story, Beauxhomme would take Ti Moune aside and whisper, “But I’ll set you up in a house of your own, pay all the bills, and visit you Tuesdays and Saturdays” — but it isn’t. The only question remaining is whether Ti Moune will accept Papa Ge’s offer and redeem her life from him by killing Beauxhomme.

Director Ron Bright makes this potentially dark and tragic story a wondrous theatrical experience. Lloyd S. Riford III (set and lighting design) creates colorful and vibrant tropical world; a torrential rain storm is his masterpiece. Marcelo Pacleb and Ricky Lam share credit for the dramatic choreography, and musical director Clarke Bright does his father proud conducting the orchestra under the stage. Sound engineer Kainoa Jarrett also deserves applause — the sound was flawless on Saturday.

‘Once On This Island’
Where: Paliku Theatre, Windward Community College
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 3
Cost: $28 adults, $26 military and seniors, and $18 students
Info: 235-7310 or www.eTicketHawaii.com

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