Frigid cold and blowing snow is powerless against the heat being generated by Once On This Island. In honour of their 10th anniversary and Black History Month, the Acting Up Stage Company has teamed up with the Obsidian Theatre Company to do what they do best: produce involving exciting theatre. Acting Up specializes in overlooked or innovative - "contemporary and provocative" in their words - musicals and Once On This Island appears, at first, to be a curious choice. Once On This Island was a Broadway semi-success and garnered Tony nominations but the tuneful score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty is a tuneful revelation that has, alas, been allowed to lapse into obscurity and become a dusty - loved but shelved - original score album.
Being the theatre companies that they are, this production of Once On This Island doesn't settle for razzle dazzle - which is not to imply in any way that it isn't stunning: the production values are extraordinary for an intimate space like Daniel's Spectrum or even a much larger commercial venue - and what could be a simple fairy tale gathers a patina of tragedy and evokes much larger issues without preaching. An audience just looking for a good time at the theatre will get one, but it is impossible to also not be nudged into considering classism, religious fervour, climate change, the destruction in Haiti and particularly the blossoming Idle No More movement. Wisely Once On This Island is framed as a fairy tale told to a young girl and the magic realism becomes actual magic allowing for a ray-of-hope happy ending to a rather dark and tragic tale.
All of the ensemble are extraordinary and have voices that flood the stage with gorgeous sound. Those playing the gods get the best numbers to bite into and when Jivaro Smith, as Agwe the god of water, bites into the spooky and sexy "Rain" his rich deep baritone induces a collective shiver of joy that ripples through the audience. It doesn't hurt that he is sexuality incarnate in a tight white tank top and turquoise runners. The others in the quartet of supreme beings get their chance to strut their stuff and are equally godlike and worth worshipping.
Jewelle Blackman is the orphaned woman at the centre of the plot and the entire production hinges on her taking a rather petulant and naive character and making the audience care. Fortunately Blackman doesn't have to rely on her good looks - a classic fairy tale ploy - and has the physicality, charm and powerful but compelling voice to hold the centre with grace and a sweet innocence. Chris Sams is a stunningly handsome Prince Charming who, from his very first sung note, makes the audience believe in true love and fate. And he almost -almost - makes us forgive his betrayal of the heroine. The loving adoptive parents, Arlene Duncan and Tom Pickett, exude warmth and carry the exposition with an involving ease.
All the voices are so deliciously strong that when there is a backstage choral blending one can, occasionally, hear a voice rise above the others momentarily as if unleashing that joyful money note was irresistible or the soundperson was just overwhelmed by the bountiful perfect choices available in the mix. The design and direction create a swirling mass of movement that coheres into multiple coup de theatres that draws gasps of delight. Appropriately, for a fairy tale, the choreography - all tightly synchronized but created with an appealing loose-limbed energy that urges one to join in - is by Marc Kimelman who has also created the more traditional, and satirical, choreography for the Ross Petty pantomimes. All of the creative team has worked in tandem - which certainly echoes the thematic material - to solve the problems of a thrust stage, though it is impossible to avoid, at many points in the action, having a section of the surrounding audience staring at the back of an emoting performer's head, and it does occasionally steal focus.
Once On This Island is utterly exuberant and even manages to turn the tragic fate of the orphan Ti Moune into a victory and a resounding cry for solidarity and hope. More than enough heat to counquer the Canadian god of snow and winter.
Once On This Island continues until Sun, Feb 9 at Daniel's Spectrum, 585 Dundas St E. actingupstage.com