Why They Tell the Story Ten years on, Acting Up Stage shows it’s here to stay by Stuart Munro @StuartMunroTO
Now in its tenth season presenting musicals to Toronto audiences, Acting Up Stage has become a leading player in the city’s cultural fabric, delivering shows that provoke and challenge assumptions and expectations. This holds true for its newest production, Ahrens and Flaherty’s 1990 piece Once On This Island, co-presented with Obsidian Theatre Company, Toronto’s leading Black Theatre company. Now almost 25 years old, the music of this sung-through one-act musical holds up incredibly well, and its message is as relevant today as it was when first produced. Despite a few bumps along the way, this new production is a powerful look at love, race and loss.
Based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, the Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy (itself a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid), Once On This Island is the story of Ti Moune (Jewelle Blackman), a young, orphaned peasant girl living in the French Antilles. After she begs the gods to show her her purpose, Ti Moune saves the life of Daniel (Chris Sams), a lighter-skinned wealthy aristocrat from the other side of the island. Despite the cultural forces trying to keep them apart, Ti Moune and Daniel fall in love, only to be torn apart by cultural expectations and social obligations. And yet there is life and hope, even in the face of obligation and opposition. No mere fairy tale, Once On This Island examines the issues of cultural separation and Shadeism (discrimination within a community based on skin tone) with honesty. Acting Up Stage’s new production treats this material frankly, never allowing it to be overcome by the show’s inherent mystical qualities. The end result is a highly entertaining and thought-provoking evening.
Helming this new production is Stratford and Shaw veteran Nigel Shawn Williams. Williams often makes good use of the intimate Daniels Spectrum stage, though he tends to suffer when there’s only one character on it; too often they seem to stand around, not sure what to do or where to move. Much more successful is Marc Kimelman’s beautiful choreography. From the energetic opening to the tearful finale, Kimelman’s staging always comes from a sense of character, heightening the action and interpreting the music. It seems to me Kimelman has what it takes to be a great director/choreographer himself one day soon. I hope someone gives him the chance.
Leading this ensemble piece is Jewelle Blackman. As Ti Moune, Blackman is full of sincerity and joy, and her heartbreak was utterly palpable. Sadly, her voice seemed not to be up to the challenge of the material (which was curious, since I’d seen her nail the “Acid Queen” in Tommy last summer), and in a musical that’s almost entirely sung-through, this is a problem. The same can be said for Chris Sams playing her love interest, Daniel. Nonetheless, the moments of tenderness these two share are honest and heartfelt, giving the romance the life it needs to be convincing. The real standouts are the quartet of actors playing the four gods who guide Ti Moune on her path – Daren A. Herbert as Papa Ge, Alana Hibbert as Erzulie, Nichola Lawrence as Asaka, and Jivaro Smith as Agwe. All four actors portray incredibly nuanced and remarkably human characters who all help and guide Ti Moune along her journey. While a few other voices may’ve struggled on their own, the sound this 11-person ensemble produces is full, rich, and powerful, a testament to music director Lily Ling’s hard work.
A few design kinks also get in the way of making this production perfect. While Michael Gianfrancesco’s simple set is elegant and versatile, Bonnie Beecher’s lighting is often too dark, forcing the audience to wonder who was speaking; and though Alex Amini’s costumes evoke life in the Caribbean, there was no real cohesiveness to the design, and I found myself wondering exactly what time period we were in – a question not answered directly by the show itself.
Nevertheless, this new production of Once On This Island proves that its difficult message is still as relevant today as it was 24 years ago, and Acting Up Stage continues to be one of the leading voices in Toronto’s vibrant theatre community.