So what ever happened to People's Theatre, Orlando's multicultural talent show? Our last sighting of them was in October 2003, when they performed a staged reading of an adaptation of Spike Lee's School Daze at PlayFest, the first Orlando Festival of New Plays. At that time, their contentious residency at the Studio Theatre was coming to an end. After an extended hiatus, they've alighted at the Plaza Theatre on Bumby Avenue, the site of their last full production: a version of The Wiz staged nearly a year ago. With an active guild handling fund-raising and merchandising duties and a solid performance schedule lined up, it looks as if they're back to stay.
Their production of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Once on This Island fills the large Plaza stage with a swirling mass of 20 actors and singers portraying the population of a small Caribbean island. Riotous colors and constant motion challenge the viewer to keep track of the players in director Ray Hatch's interpretation of the all-singing, all-dancing island fairy tale.
Once on This Island tells the tale of young Ti Moune (Charnita Stamper), who survives a hurricane and moves in with Ton Ton Julian (Chip Pryor) and his wife. They raise her to be a healer, and she waits for an opportunity. Their island suffers from the typical postcolonial social structure: a mass of working peasants ruled by a moneyed overclass, the Grande Hommes. Traces of Napoleonic French culture guide the Grande Hommes; when well-to-do young Daniel (Darrell Collins) wipes out his new car on the wrong side of the island, Ti Moune nurses him back to health.
Mysterious elemental spirits live everywhere, guiding people's lives. Papa Ge (Dwayne Allen), who looks suspiciously like Little Richard in a genie costume, represents Death. He swirls in to administer Daniel's last breath, only to get a counteroffer from Ti Moune: Her love drives her to offer her life in exchange. Ah, the joys of naive love. You just know this will turn out badly for someone. Those jinn are worse than used-car salesmen.
What follows is a study in misplaced affection, aristocratic exploitation and ethereal injustice, with the spirits electing to transform Ti Moune into a tree in Daniel's yard for her trouble. What a rip! Someone like her deserves to become at least a minor planet, not just landscaping.
The show is an amazing sequence of singing and dancing. The People's Theatre production draws on that huge talent block that seems to lurk in local church choirs (and, as is proudly pointed out, retains cast members ranging in age from 8 to 78). Besides the stunning vocals of Ms. Stamper, much of the work turned in by players in the smaller roles is impressive. Mareeko Finney and Mariel Jackson belt it out as Asaka and Erzulie, respectively, and local favorite Wiley "Skeet" Oscar looks good both as Daniel's father and the plantation owner who's put a rather obscure curse on everyone.
The biggest problem with the show is its awful sound mix. At the performance we attended, backing band De'Vine Soul blasted even those of us who were hiding in the last row with volume levels suitable for a dance club. Between the drums and bass, audio was rather muddy, and open mikes loudly broadcast heavy breathing, blurring the quieter numbers. It's a fixable flaw, but one that shouldn't have made it past rehearsal to damage this otherwise superb piece of theater. The energy is high, the choreography is exciting and the unusual story makes this fairy tale worth watching even when you can't make out every word.