ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
“It is the score, the exuberance of the performances and the musicianship that carries this show”
Based on a book (‘My Love, My Love’ by Rosa Guy), in turn based on a fairy tale (Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’), “Once On This Island” has used the bare bones of each while dressing it with more than a touch of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, throwing in shades of Alberto Casella’s ‘Death Takes a Holiday’. It is a mix that produces something exciting and effervescent but is ultimately not so easy to swallow. Or follow.
Set in the Antilles archipelago bordered by the Caribbean Sea, the story within a story focuses on Ti Moune, a peasant girl, who falls in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, a ‘grand homme’ from the other side of the island and the class divide. The island is ruled by four Haitian Vodou Gods (of earth, water, love and death). Ti Moune and Beauxhomme are brought together as a result of a wager among the gods. Is love stronger than death? Or vice versa?
Directed by Ola Ince, it opens the new season at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. As dark clouds spill their empty threats over London, a fabricated storm ignites the stage and the action. A burst of sight and sound, but lacking real substance. It is the score, the exuberance of the performances and the musicianship that carries this show. Stephen Flaherty’s music (with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) creates the atmosphere and the setting, despite Georgia Lowe’s sparse backdrop that fails to give any real sense of location. As the sun sets, however, Jessica Hung Han Yun’s evocative lighting creates the requisite tropical hues that help us to forget the London chill.
The solid cast lead us through the musical numbers with an energy that keeps the piece alive. Gabrielle Brooks, as the adult Ti Moune, gives a powerful and enchanting performance, locked in the suffering of her unconditional love for Stephenson Arden-Sodje’s perfectly voiced yet undeserving Daniel. One fails to see how Daniel earns such devotion, nor can we truly understand the sacrifices Ti Moune makes for him. But after all, we are in the hands of the Gods, so it is best just to relish in the pageant. It is a show for the senses and not for the heart.
With a six-piece band – led by Musical Director Chris Poon- tucked away somewhere in the treetops, the ensemble cast are given the propulsion needed to reach for the stars, aided by some fine numbers. ‘Mama Will Provide’ lets Anelisa Lamola’s voice soar as Asaka, the Mother of the Earth. The standout is Lejaun Sheppard’s Papa Ge: Demon of Death, who sets the stage alight (literally) each time he appears. Yet each cast member is an indispensable pulse that keeps the beat throughout. The belting numbers ‘Waiting for Life’, ‘Pray’ and ‘Forever Yours’ early in the show are later reprised and given new life and meaning.
There is plenty of life in this revival of “Once On This Island” but not so much meaning. There is definitely enough to satisfy the senses in this little pocket of London where Camden borders the Caribbean.
“It is a joy ride, although it does sometimes feel like you’re riding on a bus full of teenagers”
So where exactly did the stereotype originate? The Blonde Stereotype that is. Negative (‘dumb blonde’) or otherwise (‘blonde bombshell’), the perception of blonde-haired women has ignored the lack of evidence that suggests that blondes are less intelligent than other people. The first recorded ‘dumb blonde’ appeared in a French play in 1775; “Les Curiosités de la Foire’. She was dumb in the literal sense in that she didn’t talk much. Since then, blondes have had more fun, gentlemen have preferred them, and Hitchcock has fetishized them.
In 2001, writer Amanda Brown wrote about her experience as a blonde at Stanford Law School in various letters to friends which later became a novel and the box office success that was “Legally Blonde”. The musical, with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach, opened on Broadway in 2007 to mixed reviews. It’s West End run, starring Sheridan Smith, won three Olivier Awards, including Best Actress in a Musical for Smith.
The temptation is strong to focus on the possible relevance the story might have in today’s society. It is a cliché to state that times have certainly changed since the narrative themes burst forth into our consciousness. But it is safe to say that Lucy Moss’ staging is as self-aware as it can possibly be. Moss, riding on the global success “Six”, brilliantly uses the opportunity to satirise pretty much every stereotype possible. Nobody is safe. But what is extraordinary under her direction is the sheer sense of fun she brings to the production.
“Six” alumni Courtney Bowman commands the stage as the central character, Elle. Heartbroken after being dumped by her boyfriend Warner (Alistair Toovey) for not being serious enough, she decides she can win him back by showing she can achieve the same ambitions in the legal profession as him. In a plot line that loses touch with any form of credibility, she is accepted into the law school, rises high against odds and prejudices and eventually surpasses Warner. Along the way, everybody is put in their place, including misogynist law professors, jealous perjurers, closet gays. In fact, the characters who come out on top are the underdogs. The seemingly vacuous who ultimately reveal more depth than those who mock them.
Despite being hindered by a predominantly unmemorable score, the show still wins us over with its anergy and infectious comedy. And a couple of musical delights. The wit of O’Keefe and Benjamin’s lyrics shine through in particular during “Serious”, “Blood in the Water” and “Gay or European” which is surely the highlight of the night. It is miraculous how the words are sung so clearly with tongues so firmly set in the cheek. Homophobia, jingoism, and a whole host of other ‘isms’ are shot to the ground in a joyous few minutes of musical theatre snap, crackle and pop. Act Two opener, “Whipped Into Shape” showcases Ellen Kane’s slick choreography, pushing the all singing, all dancing ensemble to the limit.
“Legally Blonde” retains its comedy and loses none of its subversiveness in this brash and thoroughly camp production at Regents Open Air Theatre. It is a joy ride, although it does sometimes feel like you’re riding on a bus full of teenagers. Whilst there is little room for subtlety against the backbeat and spectacle, the current MT trend to introduce a Disney, cartoon-like, nasal shrillness to the delivery does grate over a couple of hours. But it’s worth it to reach the happy ending, buoyed up by the feel-good sensations that bounce the evening along.