A special Island tale

The Arden Theatre Company presents Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s Once on This Island

3 minute read
8 actors dance exuberantly on a two-tier set with a junkyard and palm tree, with a rich orange and blue backdrop.
Nadia Ra’Shaun as Ti Moune and Tiara Greene as Asaka with the ensemble in the Arden’s ‘Once on This Island.’ (Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.)

In the musical Once on This Island, the ensemble sings to the audience about “why we tell the story.” The Arden Theatre Company’s strong season-closing production looks not only at the why of storytelling but the who as well, smartly refocusing the action and broadening the narrative frame.

Based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy, Once on This Island features an ebullient, charming, and tuneful score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who are also responsible for the seminal Ragtime and the recent Anastasia. Yet not everything about this show, which originated in 1990, has aged harmoniously.

Questionable premises

Set on an island described as “the jewel of the French Antilles,” the story leans into stereotypes about simple village folk and their belief in various forms of magical religion. It also deals with colorism, as the peasants who toil outside the city are separated from the wealthy gentry who are descended from French colonizers. Ahrens and Flaherty are both white and American, and it feels slightly unsavory to consider these topics refracted through an outside perspective.

Perhaps more questionable is the central romance. Ti Moune (Nadia Ra’Shaun), a simple island girl, offers to trade her life to save Daniel (Ethan B. Walker), a privileged young man who seduces and ultimately jilts her. Even after Daniel makes clear that he will never marry Ti Moune, she remains devoted to him—even in death. One needn’t be a card-carrying feminist to recognize the strong ick factor in such a framing.

Strong ideas, strong voices

Thankfully, director Amina Robinson delivers strong ideas that center the voices of the community—the people who tell the story. In a program note, she suggests that the show’s setting is analogous to modern-day Haiti. David B. Gordon’s scenic design captures both the beauty of that island and the hard times it has faced, due to both poverty and natural disaster. The ensemble, called Storytellers, are residents of that world, who gather to tell the mythical story of Ti Moune as a momentary escape from their everyday lives.

It's hard to remember a recent musical in Philadelphia with such strong vocals across the board. Top honors go to Chabrelle Williams and Christopher Faison as Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian, the kindly couple who rescue the young Ti Moune after she is orphaned in a violent storm. Not only do they sing beautifully—Williams especially brings an operatic bearing to her part—but they imbue their characters with both compassion and weariness, showing that part of loving a child is accepting that she will grow up to make her own choices.

A trip worth taking

The quartet of gods who preside over the story acts as a chorus of their own, subtly guiding Ti Moune’s journey. Jessica Johnson is particularly arresting as Papa Ge, the spirit of death, who tempers malevolence with empathy. Tiara J. Greene brings a powerful voice and zesty personality to Asaka, the ruler of the earth. Ryane Nicole Studivant (Erzulie, the goddess of love) and Curtis Wiley (Agwe, the god of water) contribute fine vocals, and all four are costumed to the hilt by LeVonne Lindsay, who makes their individual characteristics evident through their eye-catching clothes.

Ra’Shaun movingly conveys Ti Moune’s journey, and her heartfelt acting compensates for some wayward intonation in her singing. She is arresting in a pivotal moment when, prompted by Daniel, she performs a traditional dance for the wealthy guests at his hotel. Movement acts as a second storytelling language, and choreographer Devon Sinclair keeps the audience engaged and awed throughout the production.

There will always be aspects of Once on This Island that feel trapped in another time. (Novelist Guy based her source text in part on The Little Mermaid, which opens up an even larger can of worms.) Yet the Arden’s fresh approach to the materials makes it a trip very much worth taking.

What, When, Where

Once on This Island. By Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, directed by Amina Robinson. $30-$60. Through June 23, 2024, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.


The Arden Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. The performances on Friday, June 7 (7pm), and Saturday, June 8 (2pm), will be open-captioned and audio-described. Smart Caption Glasses are available to reserve for performances starting on Wednesday, May 29.

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