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Borderlands' Debut Musical Is A Once-In-A-Lifetime Experience.

By Dave Irwin

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  EXITING THE theater after opening night of Borderlands' first musical ever, there was only one word: stunning. Once On This Island is an incredible blend of music, motion and story that genuinely earned its standing ovation. If you've ever wanted to see musical theater done right, rich in entertainment and emotion, go see Once On This Island.

Interestingly, although the 22 performers do an outstanding job, some of the brightest stars are never seen. They are writer Lynn Ahrens, composer Stephen Flaherty, director Chris Wilken and choreographer and costume designer Barbea Williams. It's Williams' effort that makes this production truly spectacular.

Ahrens was responsible for the lyrics and book, with music by Flaherty. They're a hot commodity right now with their Tony-winning hit Ragtime. They created Once On This Island a decade ago based on My Love, My Love by Trinidadian author Rosa Guy. The musical they fashioned is presented as a folk tale set against the backdrop of racial and economic segregation between dark-skinned peasants and the light-skinned rich among the Black population of Haiti. The story is simple but richly textured, with elements of Greek tragedy as the gods capriciously meddle in the life of a young girl, Ti Moune, to find out if love is more powerful than death.

Ti Moune falls in love with a rich young man, Daniel, whom she nurses to health after a car accident. She offers her life instead of his to Papa Ge, the god of death. Later, after making Ti Moune his mistress, Daniel spurns her to marry a woman of his own class. Papa Ge offers her a chance out of the deal by killing Daniel, but she still loves him and accepts her fate. Her death is a deeply moving scene which even the gods recognize as unjust, so they turn her into a beautiful tree which watches over Daniel for the rest of his life.

Director Wilkens, who is also associate artistic director at Borderlands, elected to use an all African-American cast (except for four off-stage singers) to underscore the racial theme. His blocking takes full advantage of the entire area at the large and very comfortable Proscenium Theatre. His well-conceived touches, such as obliquely introducing Daniel (as a rich man's car, the actor simply run around the stage using two flashlights for headlights), remind us how much can be accomplished with a little creative thinking.

Williams deserves much of the credit for the success of this production. Her choreography, based on her encyclopedic knowledge of dance, clearly raises this musical to a higher spiritual level. The variety of movement, the range of styles incorporated--from African and Caribbean ethnic forms to classical ballet and modern dance--perfectly complement each phase of the tale. She enhances our pleasure further with her extremely bright costuming, colorfully differentiating individual gods, peasants and beaux homme wealth. Frequent costume changes increase the illusion that the already large cast is even more numerous. She also contributed cast members: son Beyah Williams-Rasool plays percussion, and daughter Beah Williams-Rasool is a dancer. Williams' work is world-class, equal to what you'd find in Los Angeles, New York or London. Her contribution here offers vital enrichment to Tucson's cultural opportunities.

From the opening song "We Dance" to the closing of "Why We Tell The Story," the singing remains consistently strong. Only a few times during solos were phrases obscured in the large acoustic space. Off-stage singers further bolster the sound, affording the cast ample breath to flawlessly execute their dual-roles as singers and dancers, as in energetic numbers like "Rain" and "Mama Will Provide."

Myiia O. Watson-Davis delivers a spell-binding performance as Ti Moune. Her singing and dancing hit the mark perfectly, particularly during the solo dances that have her traveling through the jungle to find Daniel, and dancing at his fiancée's Grand Ball. Her emotional duet with Daniel on "Forever Yours," and "Good-bye, Ti Moune" (her trio as she leaves her adopted parents) are especially noteworthy. In the only gaff of opening night, just before Ti Moune's death scene, her peasant skirt got tangled, leaving her in knee-length shorts. Proving how professional a trouper she is, Watson-Davis handled the mishap so adroitly that some thought it was intentional symbolism rather than a simple mistake.

Likewise, Damon Bolling is marvelous as Daniel. Never worthy of Ti Moune's love, Bolling's task is to keep us from hating Daniel for his cruel and insensitive acts. His solo, "Some Girls," has the resonance to help us understand his own plight.

The supporting cast is an exceptionally strong ensemble. Even so, several stand-out from this high standard: David J. Hemphill embodies a regal stateliness as Agwe, god of Water; Ellen Benton as Erzulie, goddess of Love, delivers a solo ("Human Heart") guaranteed to produce goose bumps; and David Shaw nearly steals the show as Papa Ge, with his rich voice, comic timing and finally, tenderness at Ti Moune's death.

If Borderlands ever puts on another musical, they'll have a tough time topping Once On This Island, no matter what they do.

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