New Rhythm for Familiar Tune

The story of the Little Mermaid is among the most popular of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales. It also ranks high with Disney which has turned the story into an animated feature film and a Broadway musical.   Unlike the original, both Disney versions have a happy ending for the mermaid and her prince. Still another telling of the story began off Broadway in 1990 and, although it basically follows the same narrative with different characters, “Once on This Island” is based on “My Love, My Love,” a book by Rosa Guy and is set on a Caribbean island.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Once on This Island,” the show’s regional premiere, opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House. It is more of an operetta than a standard musical. There is very little spoken dialogue. The show is the creation of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, the duo responsible for “Ragtime,” “Seussical” and “Lucky Stiff,” three very different shows which  serve to underscore their obvious versatility. The ECT cast if 16 (including director/choreographer Tom Myers) is “on” almost constantly, portraying gods, peasants, aristocrats, island animals and even the elements as required. When the chorus sings, the results are definitely outstanding. The story centers around Ti Moune (played as a child by Jacqueline Kelley-Cogdell and as a young girl by Alex Pote), found in a tree after a violent storm by two old peasants (Eula Milon and John Jay Shoup) who save her, adopt her and, eventually, let her go to follow her heart. Of course, that leads her to Daniel (Justin Williams), a young man from the other (aka wealthy) side of the island. Her love, no surprise, is stronger than his, and class trumps romance resulting in the bittersweet denoument. Along the way, Ti Moune is aided (and sometimes deterred) by the island gods — Asaka, the earth mother (Stephanie Yoder); Agwe, god of water (William Diggins); Ezulie, goddess of love (Wanzetta Arnett); and Papa Ge, sly demon of death (Steve Salisbury) — always to irresistible rhythms and hauntingly lovely melodies. Pote does a beautiful job as the young dreamer who follows her heart through wind, rain and prejudice, eventually defying death to save her love. She has a clear, true  voice and meets the heavy vocal demands of the role with easy grace. It is about worth the price of admission to hear — and see —Salisbury and Diggins, both big men with big voices who are at ease on stage and obviously relish their roles. Their fellow “gods” work hard with solos that sometimes are out of their vocal range and sometimes hidden by the orchestra. Which is a concern in this production.  The seven-member instrumental ensemble plays very well.  The problem, as in any theater that has no orchestra pit, is that of balance. Soloists are too often overpowered, definitely detrimental when the Storytellers are speaking the narrative that moves the plotline. I have no solution to this, but it is a problem that plagues all community theaters as well as some with much more experience. Myers’ choreography is engaging and dares you to sit still and Shoup’s silhouetted set pieces, which move on and off as the mood requires, are just right for this fanciful tale.

“Once on This Island” plays Friday through Sunday. Check the web/p>

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