Your mood is as gray as the skies of March. When it comes to the pandemic, you’re weary beyond words. As you cling to the promise of Opening Day at Fenway Park — the true start of spring — you just need a way to get through the miserable present.
Well, let me direct you to SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Once on This Island.” If not a complete cure for the existential blahs, or what Cole Porter called “the old ennui,” it’s still a dose of pretty powerful medicine, administered with brio by director Pascale Florestal and a cast as spirited as they are skilled.
To be sure, the story of “Once on This Island” is a tragic one. A musical fable about an idealistic peasant girl in Haiti who sacrifices herself to save an aristocratic youth only to be betrayed by him, “Once on This Island” has issues of colonial exploitation and class inequities very much on its mind. Florestal, who is Haitian-American, does not shrink from them.
Yet there’s a unquenchable exuberance to “Once on This Island,” and, frequently, enchantment. At the glowing center of SpeakEasy’s production is Peli Naomi Woods as Ti Moune, who believes the power of death is no match for the power of love.
A senior at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Woods is slated to graduate in May with a BFA in musical theater. But I can’t for the life of me imagine what she’ll have left to prove to the BoCo faculty after “Once on This Island.”
Surrounded by a cast that includes some of Boston’s most stellar musical performers, Woods seems wholly at home in the lead role from the instant she bursts through the door on Erik D. Diaz’s set and rushes to center stage.
Soaring into a show-stopping “Waiting for Life,” Woods holds notes longer than seems humanly possible, then builds from that first scene to a portrayal of Ti Moune that achingly blends innocence, ardor, and anguish. Woods’s terrific performance is yet another reminder of the wealth and depth of theatrical talent at Boston-area universities, not to mention the caliber of training they are receiving there.
Created by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), a songwriting team who are uncommonly adept at sketching character in song, “Once on This Island” won the 2018 Tony Award for best revival of a musical. It’s based on “My Love, My Love: Or The Peasant Girl,” a 1985 novel by Trinidad-born author Rosa Guy that was a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Though the island’s name is not given in the musical, it’s referred to as “the jewel of the Antilles,” which Haiti was once called. The island is riven by distinctions along lines of class and skin color. Power and wealth reside with the lighter-skinned inhabitants of the island, the Beauxhommes, while the darker-skinned residents are peasant laborers.
Whatever their station, all are subject to the moods and whims of the gods: Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Yewande Odetoyinbo); Agwe, God of Water (Davron S. Monroe); Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Christina Jones); and, preening like a malevolent emcee, Papa Ge, the Demon of Death (Malik Mitchell).
When the gods generate a catastrophic storm, the orphan Ti Moune is saved by Agwe, after which she is cared for by TonTon Julian (Anthony Pires Jr.) and Mama Euralie (Lovely Hoffman). Years later, when Ti Moune has grown, she falls in love with one of the Beauxhommes, Daniel (Kenny Lee), the son of a wealthy landowner. (Lee sings well — his rendition of “Some Girls” casts a spell — but he needs to project more personality in his non-singing scenes). When Daniel is in a car crash, Ti Moune nurses him; with Papa Ge preparing to claim the lad, she makes a fateful bargain with the Demon of Death.
Somber stuff, to be sure, but the overall mood of “Once on This Island” is defiantly, joyously affirming. The show’s emphasis on celebrating life is bolstered by Jazelynn Goudy’s vividly expressive choreography, which manages to be both fluid and precise, and is well-executed by a cast that also includes Kira Troilo (as Daniel’s haughty betrothed), Reagan Masso (playing Ti Moune as a child), Jonathan Gallegos, Kira Sarai Helper, and Becky Bass.
SpeakEasy’s longtime home in the Calderwood Pavilion’s Roberts Studio Theatre has been reconfigured so that the audience is grouped on three sides, and director Florestal gives them plenty to look at as well as to hear, with evocative touches that range from a parade of twirling, silver-fringed umbrellas to white masks held by the cast in front of their faces that evoke the French colonizers.
“Once on This Island” amounts to a taking-back of the island’s narrative. Florestal’s production reinforces through song, dance, and sheer force of energy the notion that — to borrow from “Hamilton” — it matters greatly who lives, who dies, who tells your story. Especially that last one.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Based on the novel “My Love, My Love: Or, The Peasant Girl,” by Rosa Guy. Directed by Pascale Florestal. Music direction by David Freeman Coleman. Choreography by Jazelynn Goudy. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through April 16. Tickets start at $25. At 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com