In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Antillean poet and playwright Derek Walcott said, “Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of history dissolves.” Swift Creek Mill Playhouse must have had this quote in mind when it staged “Once on This Island,” a play that distances itself from history in favor of myth.
Created by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the duo that created the musicals “Ragtime” and “Seussical,” the show follows the life of a peasant girl named TiMoune (Kris Roberts) in the French Antilles. In a world divided between the haves and have-nots, TiMoune dreams of the day she can meet a “grand homme,” a term for the lighter-skinned descendants of French planters and their slaves.
The gods answer her prayers after a wealthy grand homme wrecks his car and she catches Florence Nightingale syndrome while nursing him back to health. Daniel Beauxhomme (Durron Tyre) becomes smitten with TiMoune as well, but runs into trouble balancing his love for her with the obligations of his own world.
Roberts and Tyre are excellent in this Cinderella tale gone sour, and have wonderful voices to boot. Tyre shines especially in his solo “Some Girls.” The ensemble surrounding the doomed duo brings this vibrant story to life, and plays host to some beautiful voices as well in songs such as “Some Say” and “One Small Girl.”
Tom Width's direction of this one-act show balances the humor and sadness with a sense of wonder. From the opening number, “We Dance,” through the end, Leslie Owens-Harrington's lively choreography is entrancing. Width's unadorned set of palm trees and sandy beach works as an excellent canvas for Joe Doran's stunning lighting design that evokes all the colors of the Caribbean. The backlit sun is especially dazzling, and the small ensemble that provides the music is flawless under Paul Deiss' direction.
The ending switches gears from tragic to exuberant a little too fast, but the show does an excellent job serving as an allegory for the effects that colonialism had on the native peoples of the Caribbean, among many other things. S
“Once on This Island” plays through March 5 at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway. Tickets are $37. Call 748-5203 or visit swiftcreekmill.com for information.