ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, Apple Tree Theatre. In 1990, eight years before he wrote Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty composed a very different score for this one-act fairy tale about a French Antilles peasant girl and the rich boy she loves to the unreciprocated end. Joined with Lynn Aherns's supple lyrics, Flaherty's warm calypso melodies echo the poignancy of Trinidad author Rosa Guy's novel, which celebrates Ti Moune's pursuit of her beloved Daniel, a quest that's already become a legend when we hear about it.
Communal storytelling makes this a true ensemble musical. Peter Amster's cast and orchestra are steeped in the tropical rhythms of the show; Randy Duncan's choreography sizzles and sparks. Karla Latrice Beard's ardent Ti Moune seems trapped in a love trance, broken only when she erupts in a celebration of African dance to remind the island snobs of their not-so-distant roots. As anguished Daniel, Anthony Pierre Christopher rightly restrains his passion before Beard's sacrificial adoration; his "Some Girls" captures the contradictions of Caribbean class pride.
Though everyone in this unimprovable 12-member ensemble is a standout (no contradiction there), Felicia P. Fields scorches the stage with her life-affirming anthem "Mama Will Provide." But regrettably Timothy Morrison's set dispenses with a major element of the story--the tree where Ti Moune is found and to which she returns. The symbol of the community's continuity, it should not be left to the imagination.