Encore Michigan

‘Once On This Island’ at Encore Musical Theatre is a lavish, beautiful show

Review February 25, 2023 David Kiley

DEXTER, MI–Once On This Island is that rare show these days that is beautiful and enjoyable for the entire family without a care about whether it’s appropriate for a ten year old. Now being presented by The Encore Musical Theatre here, it is a tapestry story that is as warming as the French Caribbean where it is set.

The story is a fable about an orphan who, while coming of age as a young woman, cares for a young man who was in a terrible car accident and falls in love with him despite his coming from the upper class of islanders. It is actually based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy, a Caribbean-set retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” As with a true fable, it has been retold in many forms. And the enormous popularity of The Little Mermaid included, this may be the most lavish and lovely telling of the core story. The original Broadway production ran in 1990-1991, and was revived in 2017, winning the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

Encore’s production is beautiful indeed. It starts with Sarah Tanner’s set, Nikki Belinski’s lighting design and Dave Early’s projections, all of which hit you like a wave when you sit down before the actors arrive. The set unleashes a Caribe vibe on you that makes you want to open the Expedia app on your phone before the show starts to check prices for a blue-water getaway.

Leah Wilson plays Ti Moune, the orphan turned lovely, soulful young woman at the center of the story. Ms. Wilson has a refined presence and projected innocence that is very right for her character. Her vocals are strong, and she brought the audience to applause at the close of one of her songs more than once.

Director/Choreographer Natalie Kaye Clater has assembled a truly wonderful ensemble of actors. Bryana Hall as Mama Euralie, To Moune’s adopted Mother, brings an Earth other presence, along with superior vocals. Marcus Calderon is fierce and fabulous as Papa G, the Sly Demon of Death. Dante Murray as Agwe, who rules over the sea, fish, and aquatic plants, is a very compelling stage presence. Absolutely every one in the 13-member cast rocks.

The comparisons with Island that are suggested by various interpretations and reviews are complex. For example, some have compared it with “Romeo and Juliet,” though the details of both stories don’t quite match up. Yes, a girl from one clan falls in love with a boy from another, seemingly incompatible, clan. And there is apparent tragedy at the end. There may be a vague bloodline between some of Shakesepare’s stories and Island, but you have to pass through Hans Christian Andersen to get there.

One of the great strengths of the story, and what makes it a wonderful production to bring the whole family to is its treatment of death and the spiritual affirmation of life having cycles and a hereafter that should be appreciated by everyone no matter their beliefs on the subject. The story is very affirming and uplifting without being saccharine. And we can’t get enough of that.

Once On This Island has a limited run, until March 12. Get your tickets while they are still available and take the family.