Arts & Events

Berkeley Playhouse Presents ‘Once Upon This Island’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 08:04:00 PM

On an unnamed island in the French Antilles, a little girl, found sheltered in the branches of a tree after a storm by a peasant couple, grows up to rescue someone herself, the son of a creole “grand homme” who lives in a great “hotel” on the other side of the mountain, and falls in love with the young man she’s healed—a love everyone says she cannot have. 

In plain words that’s the story, the situation of Ti Moune, the heroine of Once Upon This Island, the Ahrens and Flaherty musical that Berkeley Playhouse is producing at Ashby Stage, directed by Kimberly Dooley.  

It sounds like a fable or a fairytale, and indeed, the play matches the prescription fairytales often make, to follow your dreams so that the small may become great. And it also has a taste of the fabulous, of nature befriending the good-hearted and providing a place of escape even in the face of mortality. 

But there’s so much more to the show than any brief description can indicate. Berkeley Playhouse’s goal is to surpass what most audiences expect when they hear of “children’s theater” or “a family show”: making “family-friendly” professional productions something that can engage spectators of all ages on all levels. (And all ages were represented in the audience at Ashby Stage, including adults not accompanying children or in family groups.) 

This is the goal, naturally, of real theater in any form, and Berkeley Playhouse brings dedication to a sense of detail as well as to what used to be called Total Theater, the overall experience of a play, using all the resources of theatricality to achieve something unique to live performance. 

The colorful set, created from many different materials by Robert Broadfoot, brings the island to life immediately. In the midst of it all is the tree Ti Moune is discovered in, and to which, in a way, she returns. The story is propelled forward on continual waves of song and dance (choreography by Dane Paul Andres) by the cast of 11, dressed in Valera Coble’s costumes, and driven by the East Bay musicians Hamu Yaropa, of Oakland’s Lighthouse Community School, and Nathaniel Hawkes, directed by Phil Gorman from the keyboard. Everyone performs well, adding to the ensemble. In particular, Michael Mohammed (familiar to local operagoers), Melina Meeng, Andrea Brembry—and Zendaya Maree Stoermer-Coleman and Victoria Morgan as little and grown-up Ti Moune—were memorable, as was the whole ensemble.