The joyously exuberant 1990 musical Once on This Island is receiving a joyously exuberant production by Northern Kentucky University (NKU). There’s enough enthusiasm to spill beyond the confines of NKU’s intimate Stauss Theatre, the university’s blackbox studio. The production lacks some discipline, but this is a thoroughly entertaining rendition of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s tuneful show, a work well on its way to becoming a classic.
Once on This Island’s book is a playful, romantic mishmash of tales and myths. Four gods shape action that’s related by a storyteller to a young girl. Set on a Caribbean island, it’s about an orphan, Ti Moune (Tina Diaz), who cannot understand class boundaries on an island where light-skinned means privilege and dark-skinned designates peasants. She rescues Daniel (Brad Frost) from a car crash and magically nurses him back to health, then is not allowed to love him, despite a fundamental and irrational attraction — aided and abetted by the gods.
NKU’s cast is a commendably diverse mix of races, but rather than simply drawing the lines using black and white performers, director Daryl Harris has them designate their class early on with a quick swipe of white or black face paint. He locates the action in Haiti, where the racial divide is even more pronounced than the French Antilles, and he gives the show — which invites significant choreography — a powerful dose of dance inspired by 1930s ethnic choreographer Katherine Dunham and devised for his student cast by Jane Green and guest choreographer Ruby Streate.
The result is a production that pulses with physical energy, a visual pleasure, replete with vividly colored costumes (designed by Emily Dunn), masks, flags, oversized fans and flowing fabrics that extend the choreography in imaginative ways.
With some performers using body microphones and others not, with some having more dance chops than others, the production can be uneven. But it’s never without momentum and invention. Diaz, a petite senior who epitomizes the concept of triple threat — singer, dancer and actor — brings a spirited vitality to the role of the innocent, loving Ti Moune. She has several lovely scenes with her adoptive parents, played by Andrew Maloney and S. Elizabeth Carroll, who are fine singers but too young for their roles.
As the narrowly defined Daniel, Frost sings the plaintive “Some Girls” well (“Some girls you marry, some girls you love”), but doesn’t have much more to work with. Ruth Kennedy plays his appropriately haughty fiancée.
Each of the gods, positioned on elevated thrones in the studio theater’s four corners, has a featured musical number. Agwe (Thomas McGovern IV) sings of “Rain,” a number that features inventive props, including parasols outfitted with tinsel to simulate rain. As Asaka, a kind of earth mother, Kaitlyn Marie Peace brings a warm, encouraging vocal presence to support and protect Ti Moune with the swinging “Mama Will Provide.” Erzulie (Heather Roush), the goddess of love, sings a smooth Jazz version of “The Human Heart.” And Papa Ge, a mischief-maker and bringer of death played by Nik Alexzander, captures Ti Moune’s soul in “Forever Yours.” Alexzander performs with antic vehemence — perhaps too much, since many of his lyrics are hard to understand.
Harris might have reined in his cast of 27 barefoot performers a bit more, especially with the occasional imbalance between amplified and un-amplified voices. But he has tapped their youthful vigor to make this show sing as they “tell the story.” Exuberantly.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, presented by Northern Kentucky University, continues through Sunday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.