Swift Creek Mill Theatre's Tom Width makes it look easy. Choose a wonderful musical, cast it with fabulous players, back it up with a tiny but excellent orchestra —what's so hard?
If only it were that simple, every show would be as wonderful as "Once on This Island," the glorious little fable with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. Director Width's artistry is at its skillful best here, with a charming and moving contribution to the 2011 Acts of Faith Festival.
Based on Rosa Guy's 1985 novel "My Love, My Love," the short ensemble piece — 90 minutes, no intermission — tells of TiMoune, an orphan girl on a Caribbean island where gods and goddesses rule. Deities of earth, water, death and love intercede in TiMoune's life as she finds a family, falls in love with a wealthy boy and suffers the inevitable pains of life.
Width's own expansive island set, with scene painting design by Mercedes Schaum, gorgeously lit by Joe Doran, takes us right to the exotic island, filled with color and movement, enhanced by Maura Lynch Cravey's costumes. Choreographer Leslie Owens-Harrington cleverly uses two small ramps to fill the stage with swirling motion from the first moments. She keeps the energetic cast moving with dance that ranges from European-style ballroom to joyous Afro-Caribbean folk.
The Ahrens-Flaherty score is beautiful and romantic, and the singers, under the assured musical direction of Paul Deiss, are absolutely equal to it. The story is full of feeling but never cloying, and the actors convey all with unfailing exuberance. Lovely Kris Roberts is an adorable life force as TiMoune, with a voice that moves easily from the softest lament to the strongest belt. Durron Tyre, as her wealthy lover, duets gorgeously with her on "Forever Yours" and has a stunning solo turn with "Some Girls." Karla Brown and Brandon Johns burst with parental love as TiMoune's foster mother and father, and the actors playing the four gods — James Opher, Keydron Dunn, Victoria Williams and Katrinah Lewis — embody superhuman life force as they bicker over TiMoune's fate. Taylor Walls and Iman Shabazz are effective in multiple roles, and Odessa Holt (who alternates with Tyandria Jackson) is delightful as Little TiMoune.