ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
Ten Thousand Things; at Open Book through May 11, at Minnesota Opera Center May 16-18
Ten Thousand Things stages this one-act musical with spirit and depth, rendering a story of impossible love in mythic terms (along with a passel of catchy tunes and at-times raucous hoofing). The action takes place on a Caribbean island, where a massive storm and flood obliterates much of the landscape. Because the divine often possess a poetic streak, the four gods who run the joint save the young Ti Moune (Celeste Jones) by stranding her up a tree while the waters rage. Mama Euralie (Regina Williams) and Tonton Julian (Dennis Spears) subsequently adopt the orphan girl and raise her to young womanhood. Things go swimmingly until, once grown, Ti Moune yearns for love with a member of the island's aristocratic Grands Hommes (she's solidly on the peasant side of the local real estate). The gods intervene again, and Ti Moune becomes a pawn in the battle between a Goddess of Love (Michelle Carter) and the Demon of Death (Kahlil Queen). They conspire to drop into Ti Moune's life the dashing Daniel (Eric Avery, cool as sorbet behind sunglasses and the wheel of a mock car), injured in a crash and nursed back to health by Ti Moune's charms (Jones lends her character a refreshing innocence and ardor). At first Daniel shrugs off the whispers of insinuation around him, seeing what's unique about his love, but soon enough reality sets in and social caste asserts its pernicious logic. Director Peter Rothstein guides a supremely confident cast through a story that tugs hard at the emotions with its inevitability, and Peter Vitale and Michael Donley provide a varied, island-infused musical backdrop for a group of accomplished voices. Finally, the battle between Death and Love has to be played out, and we all know who wins that one in the end. But Lynn Ahrens's book and lyrics, along with Stephen Flaherty's music, guide the piece to a wistful, poetic conclusion. I've seen few pieces of recent theater so pleasurable to watch, and to admire.