Some theatrical shows work because they offer interesting characters or fascinating story lines. "Once on This Island" works because it's got really great music – and lots of it.
This 1990 Broadway musical, now being revived by Columbia's Red Branch Theatre Company, is practically wall-to-wall songs, as it has both its characters and narrators sing virtually every important line. If you're looking for snappy dialogue, you'll have to look within the tuneful melodies composed by Stephen Flaherty (the book and lyrics were penned by Lynn Ahrens).
Flaherty's music, which is brought to life by a dynamic three-piece live band led by Dustin Merrell, gives the Red Branch troupe's large ensemble a lot of opportunity to deliver really powerful ensemble vocals, which are one of this production's highlights.
It's also one of those theatrical scores that seems instantly familiar even when you're hearing it for the first time. It's similar in some ways to Stephen Schwartz's score for "Godspell" in that it manages to be uplifting, but has a melancholy tinge to it.
This serves the play's plot well, since it tells the bittersweet story of a peasant girl, Ti Moune (Anastasia Stewart), who falls in love with a boy, Daniel (Eric Hufford), who lives on the more wealthy side on an island on which the pair resides.
You don't need to be a Shakespearean scholar to pick up on the "Romeo and Juliet" aspects of that plot. As one of the characters says "The two are from different worlds, never meant to meet."
But meet they do, which causes no small amount of grief from Ti Moune's parents, who are portrayed by Michelle Harmon and Wil Lewis III. Their unhappiness translates into some of the best moments for the audience, though, when the parental duo belt out a powerful number addressed to their daughter, "Ti Moune."
"Once on This Island" isn't the type of play, though, that rests on any one plot point or idea to make it work. It's at its best when it's a mélange of music, dance and occasional dialogue served up in a multi-cultural stew.
Director Stephanie Williams works some seriously magical stagecraft, having actors shimmy on and off stage, offer up short bursts of song before exiting and moving into the audience's space on occasion.
A total of four choreographers are credited, including Mark Allen, Dawn Barnes, Jason Kimmell and Jenny Male. Why? Well, because virtually everyone in the cast seems to be moving or dancing the whole time. It must have taken a lot of work to keep it all looking natural.
Some of the best scenes involve the various narrators (called storytellers here), who fill the audience in about the various aspects of the plot. The roles of storytellers are played by Portia Boston, Tanika Cook, Brandi Dyer, Kristina Hopkins, Cristina Shunk, Monece Starling and Claire Schreibfeder.
When that large group isn't singing or speaking, they're doing a whole lot of dancing, again underscoring the reason the troupe chose to employ so many choreographers. The production is at its best when it is like a good concert, allowing the audience to get lost in the swirling music and movement on stage.
There are racial overtones to the story that are emphasized by the two young lovers and their family being cast along racial lines. But it's the class differences between the two young lovers that resonates – and comes off as timely considering the recent protests.
But even if this show's theme didn't plug into any aspect of the modern world, audiences would go home humming songs like "Forever Yours" or "Mama Will Provide." After all, while it's nice for a musical to offer a compelling story, it's essential for one to deliver memorable tunes — which "Once on This Island" has an ocean of.
The Red Branch Theatre Company continues its production of "Once on This Island" Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21-22 and 28-29 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3 p.m., at the Drama Learning Center (9130-I Red Branch Road, Columbia).
Advance admission is $18 general, $16 for students and seniors and $15 for groups of 10 or more. Tickets are $20 at the door, $25 for the children's party. Reservations are recommended. Call 410-997-9352 or go to http://www.redbranchtheatre.com.