VSMT keeps “Island” afloat

Thomas Emerson

Contemporary Broadway musicals are like vehicles in a shady used car lot: everything looks good from a distance, but closer inspection reveals dents in the bumper and cracks in the windshield. And only after you’ve bought the car and gotten it home do you realize that the back door is about to fall off.

The problem is that audiences have come to love splashy musicals that are big on pizzazz and low on good, solid craftsmanship and “heart,” that vague term that “Damn Yankees” claims is “all you really need.” “Once on This Island” – despite the fact that it’s an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s quaint “The Little Mermaid” – is one of these problem musicals, even though everything about it seems just fine. In his review of the original production, produced the year after Disney’s “Mermaid,” Frank Rich praised “Island” as an “effervescent achievement”-but he was probably just overly thankful that the show had no singing cartoon crabs.

In reality, this show’s tunes (written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) are about as memorable as something you’d hear on an elevator; its lyrics reek of sickly sweet optimistic clichés, a la Celine Dion.

One of the characters, for example, questions “how high those mountains climb … how deep those rivers flow,” sentiments that make me feel like I’m Julie Andrews in some Austrian convent.

But, as it has demonstrated aptly in years past, VSMT has enough talent to make even the worst musical run like a Rolls Royce. Much of this can be attributed to Monica Stephenson’s fast-paced, and at times extraordinarily beautiful, direction.

Thankfully, her vision for “Island” showed a great deal more creativity than her director’s note, which lifted its first two paragraphs directly from www.ahrensandflaherty.com.

Nevertheless, this was easily the best-looking production I’ve seen in my four years at ‘Nova: the cast exuded a tangible energy and bonhomie that, in one instance, bubbled over into a particularly steamy love scene. Stephenson proved adroit in gracefully moving the cast about the stage (an area where most student directors falter) while keeping sight lines open and maintaining beautiful stage pictures that resembled a Gauguin painting.

The only problems came when the small cast doubled roles: the appearance of aristocrats hoeing the earth and peasants wearing ball gowns blurred the boundaries that the script clearly places between the classes.

And when the water god (Greg Plavcan) appeared as a peasant, the person sitting next to me leaned over and asked, “Since when do peasants have blue sparkles in their hair?”

The beauty of this “Island” was enhanced by Joseph Hawkins’s and Mean Quigley’s superb choreography, which achieved a timeless, fairy tale feel by skirting the modern and only dipping into the ethnic. Although it pained me to see the cast execute an uncoordinated waltz (Astaire and Rodgers would have cringed), the rest of the dances bubbled with grace and energy.

At times, however, the dancing and staging were so energetic that they threatened to overwhelm the songs they accompanied. Particularly distracting were the pas-de-deuxing couples and the candle-bearing chorus in “Human Heart,” gimmicks that distracted from the song and the stars.

It’s common Broadway knowledge that “you’ve gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get applause,” but that doesn’t mean that every song needs a kicking chorus or a tableau. It’s as if the director and choreographers were terrified by the thought of letting the songs sell themselves. (Then again, with songs this boring, I’d be equally scared.)

The brilliant direction and choreography aside, the most radiant feature of “Once on This Island” was its superb ensemble cast. While leads Nicholas Medaglio (Daniel) and Jacqueline Kesicik (Ti Moune) were fresh and appealing, the show was easily stolen by the effervescent Suzy Thompson (Erzulie), whose stunning voice was one of the evening’s best treats.

Also noteworthy were Adam McCauley (Armand), who put on one mean puppet show (and copped quite a mean ‘tude as well) and Kimberley Townsend (Asaka), whose Aretha Franklin-esque voice shook the rafters and made me wish that she hadn’t waited until senior year to grace the St. Mary’s stage.

The only performer who took things a bit too far was Tracey Hamlette, whose strange, campy gyrations made him seem like a belly dancer gone wrong – not a god of death.

Despite some minor flaws, VSMT’s production of “Once on This Island” was a sleek, exuberant – and oft beautiful – bundle of fun. As it turns out, a bit of body work and some Turtle wax can make even the most decrepit, run-down musical seem like the best car on the lot. (But wouldn’t it be easier just to pick a good show in the first place?) Bravo, VSMT.