Littletown Town Hall production brings the joy amid issues of race and classism

It may seem odd to describe a musical as “joyful, colorful and exuberant” when the central themes are racism, colorism and classicism, but those are precisely the words that came to mind as I was watching Once on This Island, just opened at Littleton Town Hall. Set in present- day French Antilles, it’s the story of a peasant girl, found in a tree during a storm, who falls in love with one of the grand hommes the lighter-skinned ruling class descended from the French and their slaves.

Ti Moune (Camryn Nailah) is the girl who the peasants believe was placed in the tree by the four gods they worship, representing earth, water, love and death. The gods are central figures in the story, appearing both as narrators and as themselves when called upon by Ti Moune or others who believe in them. Ti Moune falls in love with Daniel, the son of a wealthy hotelier, whose car crashes near her home. She nurses him back to health, pleading with Papa Ge, the goddess of death, to spare his life. Daniel returns Te Moune’s love, but can’t (or won’t) fight the social pressures of his class. He tells Ti Mojune that some girls are to love, and others are to marry.

The story of Ti Moune does not end happily, at least not immediately. It does end with the promise that her have/have-not love, once unacceptable, is within reach of her descendants. And the final number, “Why We Tell the Story,” shows us all the relevance.

Director Betty Hart and every member of the cast is a person of color. It’s very clear that there is not an actor on stage for whom this story and its themes are not profoundly personal. This is evident in the emotion of the story and in the way it is staged and interpreted, and there’s is a real sense that the audience is witnessing something special and important.

Despite such serious themes, Once on This Island is also a lot of fun, with every song full of joy and emotion. When intermission came, I turned to my friend and said, “Already?” Both of us had been so transfixed we hadn’t realized how much time had passed. A large part of what we enjoyed so much is the dancing, which is spectacular.

The stage is fairly spare, something I actually enjoy about the Town Hall Arts Center. The space is relatively small, so the staging is always creative and resourceful. Here there are four palm trees, often incorporated in the dancing, as well as a multilevel platform and the very occasional prop. And with so much movement and color, that’s really all you need.

I enjoyed all the actors’ performances, but the standouts for me were Camryn Nailah’s Ti Moune and Arabella Beaubrun’s Asaka (this is the Mother Earth Goddess). Powerhouse voices both. But all of the gods (and the other characters, and the ensemble) are strong performers. There really isn’t a weak link here.

Over all, Once on This Island is highly recommended. Let the cast show you just how serious themes can be interpreted with exuberance and joy.