The original version of The Little Mermaid isn’t quite the fairytale that Disney managed to reimagine for its feature films, and neither is Once On This Island, which is based on Rosa Guy’s My Love, My Love, itself an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musical won the Olivier when it opened in London, while a grittier Broadway revival took home a Tony.
It’s revived now under the direction of Ola Ince at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre as the opening production of this year’s season. With the story taking place on a Caribbean island, it’s told to us as it is being told to two small children, as a way to soothe them during a storm.
And it’s a storm that kickstarts events, with an orphan girl named Ti Moune taken in by some elderly peasants. When she grows older, she falls in love with Daniel, a rich kid from the other side of the tracks that is badly injured in a car accident. Ti Moune makes a deal with the gods to spare him and for a moment it looks like the pair might live happily ever after.
It’s not to be, and Daniel is far from being any kind of Prince Charming. It’s fairly thin plot wise, and even the relatively short running time feels drawn out; the first thirty minutes would have been covered in the opening number of any other musical. The real shame though is that while there are a number of important themes right in front of you, Once On This Island doesn’t make any effort to explore them in a meaningful way.
While the plot leaves much to be desired, everything else about this production is glorious. Stephen Flaherty’s music is a gorgeous and soulful mix of vibrant Calypso and soaring ballads, and even though you may have given up on the story, the music alone is enough to easily see you through ninety minutes.
Georgia Lowe’s set is deceptively simple (though the lush surroundings of the Open Air Theatre certainly help create the vibe on an island setting). It comes alive with rich lighting design from Jessica Hung Han Yun, and the lack of any set pieces is more than made up for by spirited choreography from Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy.
As Ti Moune, Gabrielle Brooks captivates the audience. Brooks presents a strong-willed character and elevates the already powerful score to something even more inspiring. Stephenson Ardern-Sodje mesmerises with incredible vocals, and who knows what Faustian pact resulted in the magical sound that’s created when Brooks and Ardern-Sodje sing together.
It’s a talented cast all round, Courtney-Mae Briggs shines as Andrea, while Lejaun Sheppard is the wonderful antagonist Papa Ge, and keep an eye out for some cracking dance moves from Antoine Murray in the ensemble. Ola Ince has done a remarkable job, making this feel like a musical you would want to see and listen to over and over again.
It’s a shame that the book doesn’t quite hit the same notes as the music and lyrics, but ultimately this production of Once On This Island is eminently enjoyable and brings the French Antilles to the heart of Regent’s Park.