Encore Theatre’s "Once on This Island" combines lilting songs, dynamic dancing, and caustic social commentary


A woman dancing on stage during Encore Theatre's Once on This Island. She is bathed in red-pink light.

Photo by Michele Anliker.

Deep bass drums beat out a rhythm inviting people to dance. They dance to keep alive their spirits and their culture. They dance with joy, but life is never easy, even on a Caribbean island—especially when the island is Hispaniola and the country is Haiti.

Haiti is a troubled land. It has been hit hard by earthquakes, hurricanes, and a long history of unstable governments. 

But the people of Haiti are resilient and fight back time and again. They also are in a divided country. There is a racial divide between the wealthy mixed-race elites and the struggling peasant class. 

Once on This Island is based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love. Lynn Ahrens’ book and lyrics for the musical Once on This Island combine a love story with a caustic take on class in the Caribbean. Stephen Flaherty composed the music that combines Caribbean beats for lively dances and soaring pop music for plaintive songs of yearning.  

The Encore Musical Theatre presents an energetic, even passionate, production of the Ahrens-Flaherty musical through March 12 at the Maas Performance Center in Dexter.

The people of a Haitian village become the play’s Greek chorus. They tell the story of a young woman nicknamed Ti Moune, who was raised by her poor but loving and attentive parents. When she becomes older she yearns, as most young people do, for something better. She is a romantic who wants true love and prays for the gods to intervene.

In another nod to the Greeks, the story is also told by those gods, who debate and challenge one another using Ti Moune as a pawn, seeming to honor her request while knowing the dangers she faces.

Ti Moune falls in love with a flashy, playboy of the upper class. She asks for a storm to bring him to her. The storm is unrelenting and ferocious, and the young man crashes. Ti Moune saves his life and hopes to light a romantic fire.

This simple fairy tale is the basis for celebrating Caribbean culture and challenging the racial divide that separates the rich, mixed-race grandees from the struggling poor. 

A man and woman dancing on stage during Encore Theatre's Once on This Island.

Photo by Michele Anliker.

Director and choreographer Natalie Kaye Clater does a fine job managing a large cast and keeping the production fluid as it moves from the busy village life to the visually dramatic magic of the gods. But most importantly, she creates excitement with several thundering dances that become yet another storyteller by expressing in dance what can not be expressed in any other way.

The set design by Sarah Tanner is flexible and suggests the simplicity of the village against the grandeur of the rich. She uses excellent rear screen projections to show the Caribbean sea, wicked storms, quiet breezes, and a giant moon. Also, a shadow history lesson is well done. It shows how the sexual relations between white French landowners and Black fieldhands created an upwardly mobile biracial class, a new world aristocracy.

Leah Wilson brings a big voice and a lithe dancing figure to Ti Moune. Her voice soars on songs of both aspiration and romantic yearnings. Her dancing is equally suggestive and dramatic. 

Bryana Hall and Mike Sandusky play Ti Moune’s loving adoptive parents, projecting the right sense of love and fun with the apprehensions of what she faces in her pursuit of a different life. 

Jason Rodriquez is the playboy Daniel. Rodriquez does a fine job of balancing roguish charm with a hesitant guilty feeling of betrayal.

The other major characters are the gods Dante Murray as Agwe, the sea god; Marcus Calderon as Papa Ge, the god of death; Christina Turner as Asaka, the Earth goddess; and Aurora Penepacker as Erzulie, the goddess of love. Each god has their moments. Calderon makes a particularly scary god of death. Penepacker plays Erzulie as coy and charming but also fickle. She performs one of the better songs, “The Human Heart.”

This is truly an ensemble piece and every cast member adds to the overall story with group singing and vibrant dancing.

The songs are not particularly memorable outside of the story, but the play is built on almost continuous song and dance and it’s uniformly well done. The history lesson is important but the storytellers’ tale is a lesson in love.

Given the current weather, Once on This Island seems like a good choice for an escape to the Caribbean.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"Once on This Island" continues through March 12 at the Encore Music Theatre’s Maas Performance Center at 7714 Ann Arbor St., Dexter. For tickets, visit theencoretheatre.org, call 734-268-6200, or visit the box office 10 am to 2 pm, Tuesday-Thursday, or beginning two hours before each performance.