It is hard to imagine a more perfect show for southwest Michigan at the beginning of March to stave off the dreary doldrums of winter than “Once On This Island.” Visually warm and lovely, with music and performances this delightful, it’s impossible to not be transported to the French Antilles for a little over an hour in The Kalamazoo Civic’s excellent production of this mystical, marvelous tale.
With gorgeous, colorful design, a terrific live orchestra directed by Rob Lindsay, a festive, moving score by Stephen Flaherty, a powerful ensemble, and some knockout performances under inspired direction from Anthony J. Hamilton, this telling of the story is a delight from start to finish.
It is not so much the story — adapted by Lynn Ahrens into a one-act musical from Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel — but the telling here that is so utterly delightful. Indeed, the story is quite tragic, revealing the journey of a young peasant woman who prays to impish gods that she may discover her life’s purpose, only to find herself distraught by star-crossed love, a pawn of the gods in their wager over whether love or death is stronger.
This fable is made especially beautiful and magical through song and dance (marvelously co-choreographed by Hamilton and Heather Mitchell) as well as jewel-toned design by Madeline Schnorr with lighting and sound from AnnMarie Miller, creative props by Stacy Bartell, and costumes by Miranda Sieber. Ultimately, it doesn’t shy away from critiquing the shadows of colonialism rooted in racism, and teaches that “our lives become the stories that we weave.”
Particularly gorgeous numbers include “Waiting for Life” and its reprise, which include ensemble members transforming into birds, frogs, and trees, through sound and clever costumes as well as shapes of their bodies. Micah J. Hazel is a compelling Daniel, well suited to Bri Edgerton’s ebullient and emotive Ti Moune, and his “Some Girls” particularly shows off his gorgeous voice.
Melinda Vanderbilt’s Asaka is a powerful earth mother, and her “Mama Will Provide” is one of many show highlights. Stephanie Payton’s Mama and Ariel Laws’ Tonton are terrifically sympathetic parents to Edgerton’s Ti Moune. They create utterly believable relationships on stage.
As do the fantastic more ethereal and elemental characters, including Alonzo Julian’s extraordinary Papa Ge, the death demon, and Este’ Fan Kizer’s potent, swirling God of the Sea, Agwe.
The Civic’s “Once on This Island” offers wonderful homage to island culture on practically every level, with a nod to the wounds of colonialism, while keeping its focus on its mighty beating heart — the power of artful storytelling — shot through with spirit. In every way, it’s a lovely, touching escape this winter.
Once On This Island
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
Feb. 22-March 10