Let there be no doubt that the events of September 11 have colored the vision of Terri Kent, Porthouse Theatre's earnest artistic director.
"How can I plan a season? How can we even think of entertainment?" she asks in the Porthouse program. The answer, she goes on to reveal, is by unveiling "a season of magic." To accomplish this, she has selected a 1990 wisp of tropical exotica called Once on This Island. Kent calls it the pole her company will use to "vault across the abyss of tragedy." It's also an awfully slight little work to be carrying the weight of Kent's objectives.
If nothing else, Once on This Island is a musical perennial that never fails to bear joyous passion fruit. Complete with busty calypso deities decked out to look like 1940s lampshades, it chronicles a fierce battle between the Goddess of Love and the Demon of Death over the fate of a winsome island Cinderella. And though it aspires to be a parable of love and forgiveness, it's basically the musical equivalent of tropical Life Savers.
The show's gifted creators, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, know how to get the most of their source material: In Ragtime, it was the emerging musical syncopation and new morality of the 20th century; in Seussical, it was the plaintive whimsy of Doctor Seuss. Here, it's the fantastic Caribbean culture of Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love.
This show is crafted to exude the breezy zest of folk art. A group of exuberant storytellers, practically bursting out of their rainbow-hued peasant garb, dance and sing their supernatural tale of love and death to beguile a little girl frightened by a storm. The result is an enchanting hodgepodge that uses voodoo masks as well as forms of terpsichorean erotica. Some of the songs are disguised to sound like ancient peasant chants; others bring to mind Xavier Cugat samba hits of the 1940s. At one end of the spectrum, Once on This Island has production numbers that appear to have been borrowed from an MGM musical spectacular; at the other end, it suggests forms of ancient ritual that look as if they were unearthed from a Mayan temple. It's also loaded with more tropical embellishments than the Deluxe Luau at the Honolulu Hilton.
The production has been entrusted to director Victoria Bussert, who eroticizes the show with popping eyes and heaving bosoms, as she did with her Cain Park version several years ago. Assembling a precocious cast, she, along with choreographer Eric Van Baars, evokes sultry fires with movements that perilously waver between dance and fornication. A lifted skirt recalls the essence of voodoo eroticism, an upturned shoulder or bump-and-grind creates an air of decadence.
Traditionally, the virginal heroine, Ti Moune, is portrayed by a sylphlike innocent; Thomasina E. Gross is a major exception. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Eartha Kitt, she's as ripe as a fertility goddess, exuding the brazen wantonness of an Old Testament temptress. Her feigned attempts at innocence melt like a Popsicle under the erotic heat. She is teamed with Dominic Roberts, who is inappropriately far more suggestive of white-bread Brady Bunch innocuousness than the mulatto masculinity the script calls for. Together, they are ludicrous, a romantic pairing of a lioness and a jackrabbit.
Singing "Mama Will Provide," an ode to the wonders of Mother Nature, Colleen Longshaw fizzes like champagne. Kristopher Thompson-Bolden's maniacally fey death god manages to whip up frightening charisma, which lends the production a supernatural savagery. Derrick Cobey's Agwe, God of Water, is the evening's one undeniable touch of testosterone.
Designer Steve Pauna's uninspired set comes closer to tacky Pier One than island paradise. Costume designer Robin Ruth compensates for the lack of atmosphere with her witty emphasis on a glut of well-developed busts, and Nancy Maier's musical direction turns a handful of instruments into a Bahama Mama bash.
On the Porthouse stage, erotica decidedly wins out over the romantic and mystical elements of this delicately charming fantasy. It may not be the "magic" promised by Terri Kent, but it is hot-blooded enough to make audiences happily perspire.
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