Constellation revives ‘Once on This Island’ to joyful effect



The dance is ebullient, but we know it augurs heartbreak.

In Constellation Theatre Company’s winning staging of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical “Once on This Island,” a key moment sees Ti Moune, a young woman from a peasant background, performing at a soiree for wealthy snobs, including the man she loves. To percussive music, she flings herself into a folk dance: sinewy torso movements and kicks that whip the folds of her daffodil-colored dress. She sports a blissful smile. But we in the audience are only too aware that a crushing romantic rejection is at hand.

The flair and poignancy of the scene is typical of director Angelisa Gillyard’s production, which boasts a strong cast — including the magnetic and golden-voiced Kalen Robinson as Ti Moune — and apt choreography by Maurice Johnson. With an offstage orchestra finding the lyricism and jauntiness in the Caribbean-flavored score, overseen by musical directors Elisa Rosman and Refiye Tappan, this is a worthwhile and joyful rendition of a classic.

Scenic designer Jessica Alexandra Cancino sets the mood with her fine evocation of a picturesque warm-weather locale: buildings with shutters, a wrought-iron balcony, silhouettes of palm trees. This is the eponymous island, whose humble folk live apart from a class of snooty plutocrats. But when elite scion Daniel (Emmanuel Elliot Key) crashes his car in a storm — the accident is ingeniously evoked through movement and flashlights — Ti Moune nurses him back to health, and a relationship flares. With assorted gods providing help and hindrance, love can’t conquer all, but does exert transformative power.

Storytelling is another transformative force the musical pays tribute to, with a framing tale that casts Ti Moune’s bittersweet saga as a tale told to distract and comfort a frightened girl. Ariana Caldwell is a knockout as the child — now-scared, now-high-spirited — and also aces the role of Young Ti Moune. Other notable performances include Deimoni Brewington and Cayla Hall as Ti Moune’s protective adoptive parents, and Edima Essien as the nurturing supernatural presence Asaka. Costume designer Kendra Rai adds fairy-tale mystique with costumes that include elegant ballroom attire for Daniel’s circle.

There is a hint of stiffness in an initial sequence that shows frame-tale characters greeting one another. But the awkwardness soon dissipates as the characters shift into festive one-upmanship, one by one trying out dance steps to impress the group. Soon they’re as raptly absorbed in each other’s moves as we are in this uplifting musical.

Once on This Island, book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty; based on Rosa Guy’s novel “My Love, My Love.” Directed by Angelisa Gillyard; lighting design, Peter Leibold VI; sound, Kevin Lee Alexander; properties, Amy Kellett; fight and intimacy directors, Jenny Male and Jordan Stanford. With Patrick Leonardo Casimir, Sydney Johnson, Bianca Lipford, Theodore Sapp and Carl L. Williams. 90 minutes. $20-$55. Through Nov. 6 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW.

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