Constellation brings “Once on This Island” to life with happy effect


The dance is bubbling, but we know that it augurs heartbreak.

In the winning staging of the 1990 Constellation Theater Company musical “Once on This Island” by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, a key moment sees Ti Moune, a young woman from a peasant background, performing during of a party for wealthy snobs, including the man she loves. On percussive music, she launches into a folk dance: nervous torso movements and kicks that whip the folds of her daffodil-colored dress. She wears a blissful smile. But we in the audience are all too aware that crushing romantic rejection is at hand.

The scene’s flair and poignancy are typical of director Angelisa Gillyard’s production, which boasts a solid cast – including the magnetic, golden-voiced Kalen Robinson as Ti Moune – and a proper choreography by Maurice Johnson. With an offstage orchestra finding lyricism and cheerfulness in the Caribbean-flavoured score, overseen by musical directors Elisa Rosman and Refiye Tappan, this is a valid and joyous take on a classic.

The scenographer Jessica Alexandra Cancino sets the tone with her beautiful evocation of a picturesque place on sunny days: buildings with shutters, wrought iron balconies, silhouettes of palm trees. It is the eponymous island, whose humble people live apart from a class of pretentious plutocrats. But when elite scion Daniel (Emmanuel Elliot Key) crashes his car in a storm – the accident is ingeniously evoked by movement and flashlights – Ti Moune nurses him back to health and a relationship breaks out. With various gods assisting and hindering, love cannot conquer all, but wields transformative power.

Storytelling is another transformative force the musical pays homage to, with a framing tale that presents the bittersweet saga of Ti Moune as a tale told to distract and comfort a scared girl. Ariana Caldwell is knocked out as a kid – now scared, now peppy – and also stars as Young Ti Moune. Other notable performances include Deimoni Brewington and Cayla Hall as Ti Moune’s protective adoptive parents, and Edima Essien as nurturing supernatural presence Asaka. Costume designer Kendra Rai adds a mystical touch to fairy tales with costumes that include an elegant ballroom outfit for Daniel’s Circle.

There’s a hint of stiffness in an initial sequence that shows frame-tale characters greeting each other. But the awkwardness quickly dissipates as the characters go into festive one-upmanship, trying out dance moves one by one to impress the group. Soon they are as engrossed in each other’s movements as we are in this uplifting musical.

Once on this island, book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty; based on Rosa Guy’s novel “My love, my love”. Directed by Angelisa Gillyard; lighting design, Peter Leibold VI; sound, Kevin Lee Alexander; properties, Amy Kellett; fight and intimacy directors, Jenny Male and Jordan Stanford. With Patrick Leonardo Casimir, Sydney Johnson, Bianca Lipford, Theodore Sapp and Carl L. Williams. 90 minutes. $20 to $55. Until Nov. 6 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW.

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