“The story of Once On This Island is something that is as old as humanity,” says George Brock, the show’s director. The musical — with music by Stephen Flaherty and book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, both of the Tony-winning Ragtime — opens this week at Miller Outdoor Theatre, with a cast of young actors from TUTS’ Humphreys School of Musical Theatre.
When it opened on Broadway in 1990, the Caribbean-inspired musical became a critical darling, with Frank Rich, then of the New York Times, calling it an “otherworldly thrill." Over the last nearly three decades, the chamber musical has gone on to find life in a successful London run, and will mount a revival this fall on the Great White Way. It’s the story of Ti Moune, a young girl who finds herself caught between the gods who rule over her small island in the French Antilles and her own desires.
Ti Moune is a peasant, and she’s in love with a rich boy from the other side of the island. She’s saved from a wild storm as a baby, raised by adoptive parents and, when she prays to the gods to give her the great things she wishes for herself, they laugh. But, as mythical gods are wont to do, they decide to give her the power of love. And, as gods are also wont to do, they squabble among themselves to see just how much they can push her in showing her love.
“[The musical is about] something that we constantly struggle with: how to overcome our differences and learn to share this magical world,” says Brock. “Aherns and Flaherty have a very simple answer for that: use the power of love to overcome our fear and bring us all together in peace and harmony.”
Telling that story will be a cast of young people, ages 9 to 19, from the TUTS Humphreys School of Musical Theatre. The school offers classes in acting and dancing, and the students regularly perform productions at Miller, and many are cast in TUTS’ mainstage performances.
“What makes Humphreys kids stand out for me is their level of commitment,” says Brock. “They are coming downtown through some serious traffic after a long day at school and bringing all of their talent and energy to bear on putting together a very complex musical in a very short rehearsal period and they do it with a smile, a giggle and a lot of joy.”
One of them is Elyce West, who will be enrolling at Pace University to study musical theater this fall. She plays Asaka, the mother goddess of the earth.
“I love how over the top she is,” West says. “She has some of the most upbeat songs in the whole mood, and she really changes the mood when she’s on stage. She protects and challenges Ti Moune throughout her journey across the island.”
West began performing in the first grade, dancing at her church as well as in school. After performing in productions at her high school, Manvel High School in Alvin ISD, she joined the Humphreys School last summer. There, she performed the role of “another women in cubicle" for the 2016 summer conservatory of Working: A Musical and was part of the Junior Theatre Festival ensemble of Legally Blonde: The Musical that traveled to Atlanta and competed against other companies. As a Humphreys student, she's taken classes in dancing, acting, and singing, and credits the school for preparing her for her Pace audition.
“The Humphreys School helped me construct a binder of audition materials,” she said. “They helped me select which musical selections should be in there, what should go on my résumé, they helped me select monologues. That really helped me be much more professional and look at my work more seriously.” For her Pace audition, she sang “Be a Lion” from The Wiz and “I Can Cook, Too” from On the Town, and gave a monologue from August Wilson’s Fences.
West says that the Humphreys School also gave her exposure to other kids like her, students who love to perform.
“It’s such a great community of people,” she says.
For Once on This Island, West says the final product wasn’t quite what she was expecting.
“There have been many productions of [the show], and coming into this I expected to perform this story in a traditional fashion,” she explains. “Our directing team has taken their on twist to this story and created something different.
“[Our production] is not set in a traditional Haiti-like setting. The island we’re on has been ravaged by storms and filled with debris and clutter that has washed up on the beach. From this clutter come the different props that the islanders use to tell the story. They also use themselves. The tree is abstract, made of wooden pallets rather than a colorful recreation of an actual tree. Think more of Beasts of the Southern Wild and less traditional Broadway re-staging.”
Through June 10. Free. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Dr. 281-373-3386. More info at milleroutdoortheatre.com.