SpeakEasy Stage and Pascale Florestal take us to an “island” of theatrical delights

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Can love conquer everything?

This is the question at the center of “Once on This Island”, a joyful explosion of music where a young peasant girl, Ti Moune, falls in love with a man of another socio-economic status and follows his heart at all costs.

The show, presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company (until April 16) is much more than a tasty love story, however. Class, race and color shape history. Ti Moune lives in a modest village where most people are darker in color, the well-to-do are lighter-skinned and revere French mannerisms.

It quickly turns out that the villagers who dance “just to stay alive” endure a difficult existence, but their relentless verve pulses throughout the production directed by Pascale Florestal. Florestal, who is of Haitian descent, aspires to develop “theatrical experiences that illuminate narratives rarely seen on stage.” Here, with the show‘s balanced tone, she succeeds. This May at the Umbrella Arts Center, Florestal, Director of Education and Associate Producer of The Front Porch Arts Collective and one of ARTery 25, will direct “The Colored Museum,” another narrative that delves deep into black culture.

Based on Rosa Guy’s book “My Love, my Love”, the play was written by award-winning creative team Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) in 1990 and was nominated for eight Tony Awards.. The show ultimately won in 2018 Best Revival of a Musical. The eclectic duo are also responsible for ‘Ragtime’ and the movie ‘Anastasia’, although ‘Island’ inhabits a different musical universe.

The cast of “Once on this Island” from SpeakEasy Stage Company. (Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios)

T-Moune (Peli Naomi Woods) is rescued from a threatening storm by the god Agwe (Davron S. Monroe), ruler of the sea, fish, and aquatic plants. She is raised in a loving home by Mama (Lovely Hoffman) and Ton Ton Julian (Anthony Pires Jr.). Later, she meets Daniel Beauxhomme (Kenny Lee) after being seriously injured in an accident. T-Moune nurses him back to health and falls in love despite the apprehensions of his parents and the townspeople. Praying to the gods Agwe, Asaka (Yewande Odetoyinbo), Erzulie (Christina Jones) and Papa Ge (Malik Mitchell), Ti Moune asks for help in directing his life and this newfound love. Eventually, she must choose between her life and hers when Mitchell’s Papa Ge, the god of death, dressed in a purple and black brocade jacket and a skull cane, makes a proposition.

The music is beautiful everywhere, especially when the ensemble dances and sings with icicle-adorned umbrellas in “Rain” or shares the town gossip in the clever “Some Say.” And the choppy notes of “The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” juxtaposed with the flowing, more legato style of music the villagers sing, speak volumes about how different each group is. Yet there are moments of even rarer beauty. Woods, a student at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, absolutely shines as Ti Moune in every scene, especially her jaw-dropping and gripping rendition of “Waiting for Life.” In their duet, the melodious harmonies created by Woods and Lee (who owns a beautiful instrument) were comforting. And, although she only has one solo, Erzulie (Christina Jones), the “Human Heart” of the god of love, was performed with art. The cast’s fluid crescendos and decrescendos are the work of talented musical director David Freeman Coleman. Jazelynnn Goudy’s choreography is also remarkable.

Peli Naomi wood
Peli Naomi Woods “shines in every scene she’s in” as Ti Moune in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Once on this Island.” (Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios)

“Once on This Island,” with its dynamic characters, movement, and vibrant music, makes it easy to see why it’s so celebrated. The combination of that kinetic energy, the moral of loving the story being the best bet, and Florestal’s thoughtful direction ensure its impact lives on.


“Once on This Island” runs through April 16 at SpeakEasy Stage Company.

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