It cannot be a coincidence that chilly Minnesota has been gifted with two slight-but-sunny Caribbean musicals in a matter of weeks. (Or, for that matter, that "Frozen" is cooling its heels until May before skating into town.)
The Bob Marley musical "Three Little Birds" opened last month at Children's Theatre Company and "Once on This Island," a fairy tale set on an archipelago in the Caribbean, plays through Sunday at the Ordway (to bring it all full circle, CTC staged "Island" in 1999). It features a company of players who assemble in what appears to be a junkyard to tell us about how the gods manipulate a charming young woman named Ti Moune when she falls in love with a man named Daniel who, because he is wealthy and lighter-skinned than she is, cannot return her affections.
Yeah. He's a jerk, and in case you didn't notice that, he sings, "Some girls you marry and some you love," which sounds like a raw deal for all of the kinds of girls.
"Once on This Island" is handsomely designed by Dane Laffrey, particularly a scene titled "Le Triste Histoire des Beauxhommes." That scene tells of the colonization of the island and is performed as a shadow play, so that the actors behind a huge white screen resemble the silhouetted figures in Kara Walker's acclaimed works about colonization. The timeless feel is complemented by songs that, although they tend to blend together, are sunny and poppy.
Still, for all the modern craft in the show, its identity politics are quite retro. Has there ever been a story about a man who masochistically continues to throw himself at a woman who is clearly unworthy of him? Just asking.
Some of the actors' accents are difficult to understand but that doesn't interfere with the simple story, which we are told is "a journey that would test the strength of love against the power of death," which reminds me that, for further evidence of Daniel's unworthiness, Ti Moune also saved his damn life.
Anyway, the bright songs, which sound a little like calypso and a little like Broadway, keep the show moving, as does Camille Brown's vigorous choreography, executed with precision by the athletic cast. The biggest name, and the most memorable voice, belongs to raspy "American Idol" veteran Tamyra Gray, who gets to be Evil in this battle of Good vs. Evil.
Because the story is so simple, creators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are able to touch lightly on issues such as colorism, colonialism and conservation in a way that acknowledges them without suggesting we've figured out what to do about them.
Appropriately, the ending of "Once on This Island" doesn't wrap things up too neatly. There are small tragedies and triumphs in the 90-minute show, with a present-day little girl (powerfully voiced MiMi Crossland) watching them along with the audience, the hope being that she can learn from what she sees and carve out a better path.
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