Jewelle Blackman (left) and Nichola Lawrence heat up this Island.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Acting Up Stage/Obsidian). At the Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas East). Runs to February 9. $25-$50. 1-800-838-3006. See listings. Rating: NNN
Acting Up Stage and Obsidian's remount of the Caribbean-themed musical fairy tale Once On This Island should chase away those winter blues and provide a bit of a Black History Month lesson to boot.
The 1990 fantasy tells the tale of orphan Ti Moune (Kaya Joubert Johnson as a girl, Jewelle Blackman as a young woman), who's raised on an unnamed island by adoptive parents (Arlene Duncan, Tom Pickett) and falls in love with Daniel (Chris Sams), a light-skinned member of the aristocratic Beauxhommes whom she rescues after a storm and nurses back to health.
When Daniel returns to his privileged life, Ti Moune goes to find him, believing that her love will triumph over stuffy tradition. Overseeing everything are a quartet of gods who dance, sing and - in one of the more intriguing sequences - give us a primer on French colonization of this tropical island.
Lynn Ahrens's book feels a tad earnest, and the story takes a while to heat up, but Stephen Flaherty's tunes are infectiously enjoyable, and Marc Kimelman's Afro-inspired choreography is at times thrilling. The scene in which Ti Moune walks through a forest is enchanting. Michael Laird's sound design is particularly effective in Nigel Shawn Williams's staging, at times evoking the windswept feel of being on an actual island.
It's a shame not all the performers are of the same calibre. Duncan's soulful, powerful voice is worth the price of admission, and Sabryn Rock stands out both in the chorus and as Daniel's fiancée, Andrea. Daren A. Herbert, so good in Acting Up Stage's A Craigslist Cantata and Parade, demonstrates complete authority as Papa Ge, the god of death.
But Blackman, while an excellent dancer, doesn't connect emotionally to Ti Moune's songs or dialogue, leaving a big gap in the centre of what should be an involving, bittersweet story of star-crossed love.
And it's unfortunate that the red-cheeked masks worn by a group of gods are the same sported by the sadistic Jigsaw killer in the Saw movies.