Once on This Island is a musical that most folk are unfamiliar with. Based on Rose Guy’s novel My Love, My Love, or, The Peasant Girl, a Caribbean-set retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid, now is the perfect time to reintroduce it to the public, for Disney’s long-awaited live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid has just swam into cinemas.
Set in Haiti, OOTI follows a dark-skinned peasant girl, Ti Moune, who falls in love with Daniel, a mixed-race grand homme (French for “upper class”). They are, essentially, star-crossed lovers; a modern Romeo and Juliet.
A more obvious “racial” take on The Little Mermaid (or, indeed, Romeo and Juliet) would have seen a Black girl fall in love with a White man, à la Noughts & Crosses (though that novel is made more intriguing with its racial reversal, in which Black folk are the elite). The love in OOTI is forbidden not just because of racism but also colourism and classisim. The ruling elite are descended from French planters and their Black slaves whilst the peasants are descended exclusively from freed Black slaves. The mixed-race ruling elite look down upon the dark-skinned peasants so a union between a member of each group is forbidden.
The story, though sociopolitical, is also mystical and mythical, with the inclusion of Lwa (also known as loa and loi), spirits in the African diasporic religion of Haitian Vodou. The musical refers to them as Gods.
The musical begins with a Haitian woman telling two scared girls the story of Ti Moune. We are then transported to the main setting of the play. Agwe, God of Water (Ashley Samuels) unleashes a terrible storm upon the island, which in turn causes a disastrous flood, wiping out many villages. However, the gods save the life of Ti Moune, an orphan, by placing her in a tree above the flood’s waves. She is found and subsequently adopted by a peasant couple.
Years later, a grown-up Ti Moune (Olivier nominee Gabrielle Brooks, who might just be one of the best leading ladies I have ever seen) prays to the gods to let her know her purpose. She also asks that they let her be like the fast-driving strangers on the roads near her village – the grands hommes. Hearing her plea, the gods laugh at her. However, Erzulie, Goddess of Love, suggests that they give her love because it is stronger than any of the other elements. Offended, Papa Ge, Demon of Death proposes a bet to prove which is stronger: love or death.
Agwe arranges for the car of Daniel Beauxhomme (the sublime Stephenson Ardern-Sodje, who I previously saw as Simba in The Lion King) to crash during a storm so that Ti Moune may meet Daniel and restore him to health. Despite the objections of the other peasants, including her own parents, Ti Moune helps the intruder recover. She falls in love with the stranger, and as she cares for the unconscious boy, she imagines he loves her too.
When Papa Ge comes to take Daniel’s life, Ti Moune offers her life in exchange for Daniel’s so that he will not die. Papa Ge is angry but leaves, hinting he will return – sooner or later, as her life now belongs to him. The story then follows Ti Moune as she travels to the other side of the island to reunite with her love – but, sadly, the musical’s ending is closer to Hans Christian Anderson’s tragic original tale than Disney’s saccharine adaptation.
It’s an interesting story and a clever reimagining of The Little Mermaid, which one can read as metaphoric, e.g. two people from wildly different cultures (a human and a mermaid) falling in love and the fallout of such a forbidden love.
OOTI skilfully critiques the racism, colourism and classism of Haiti, with a fantastic history lesson in the middle of the play which informs the audience of the land’s colonial history. The story is told through puppetry, with a huge face used to represent the French father of the nation. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre used similar puppetry in 101 Dalmatians last year; it’s something they really excel at.
The score is hit-and-miss. I love the traditional music, and there are some good songs, especially the opening number, ‘We Dance’, in which the peasants pray to the Gods. I especially enjoyed the colourful ‘Mama Will Provide’, sang by Asaka, Mother of Earth (Anelisa Lamola steals the show with this number). Lejaun Sheppherd (perfectly cast as Papa Ge) delivers a fiery (literally) rendition of ‘Promises’, and Ashley Samuels is striking in Agwe’s number ‘Rain’.
Erzulie’s ‘The Human Heart’, which I saw Lea Salonga (who played the role on Broadway) sing last year, is a beautiful ballad but also a bit boring. Indeed, much of the score is sweet but it’s not the most memorable.
Speaking of Erzulie: I had been excited to see Emilie Louise Israel onstage again, after seeing her go on as Eliza Schuyler (understudy) in Hamilton last year but she was off, ironically. However, Bernadette Bangura was an exceptional Erzulie, and she must be applauded for going on as both of her cover roles: Erzulie and Andrea, Daniel’s icy fiancée.
As for design: the costumes are gorgeous (especially the goddess’ gowns) and the lighting is majestic (especially when the sun sets and we descend into darkness) but I was rather disappointed by the stage design – or lack thereof. Whilst most folk are unfamiliar with this musical, those who know of it are no doubt familiar with the most recent Broadway revival, an immersive, in-the-round production – complete with sand and a goat roaming around!
Whilst Regent’s Park is a fantastic setting for this musical – especially because the stage sits within, and is cloaked by, beautiful trees – the designers opted for a bare black stage with virtually no set. It’s a minimalistic take; at times, I thought RPOAT had welcomed back Jamie Lloyd to direct but then I remembered that he’s busy with the Sunset Boulevard revival (yes, really).
I’m not sure why the creative team have decided to strip the musical back (well, the stage; the costumes are dazzling). I don’t think it increases the emotion or the tension. Perhaps the creatives’ explanation will make sense but if audiences are left wondering why something was changed, the change has not paid off.
But, whilst I’d have preferred an immersive production, the costumes, lighting and performances fill the void (or, rather, stage) left by the lack of set.
I have been wanting to see Once on This Island for years, alongside another musical Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is reviving: La Cage aux Folles. Overall, this is a roaring revival of an intelligent reimagining of a classic story; it explores something most creatives are scared to touch: racism and colourism amongst people of colour.
Once on This Island runs at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until June 10.