Storybook musical ‘Island’ enchants theater-goers

Peli Naomi Woods, Kenny Lee (both center), and the cast of SpeakEasy Stage’s Once on This Island (2022). Photo by Nile Scott Studios.

BOSTON – There is something about a steel pan, the Caribbean beat and the sheer joy of “We Dance,” the opening number of the musical “Once on This Island,” now being performed by the SpeakEasy Stage Company through April 16 in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.

It explodes onto the stage as members of the audience rise to dance along with the performers, perhaps also celebrating the arrival of spring outside the theater.

The Tony-winning musical is a love story about how love may endure and eventually triumph even under the direst of circumstances, but it is also a story about class and race, tolerance and bridging the differences that separate us.

While the villagers dance, they are keenly aware that their fates are often controlled by the powerful gods: Erzulie (Christiana Jones), goddess of love; Papa Ge (Malik Mitchell), the god of death; Agwe (Marshall W. Mabry IV), ruler of the sea, fish and aquatic plants; and Asaka (Yewande Odetoyinbo), the goddess of earth.

The team of Lynn Ahrens, who broke the book and music, based on the novel “My Love, My Love” by Rose Guy, and Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the music, are the duo behind the musical, which was nominated for eight Tony Awards in 1990 and won the Tony in 2018 for Best Musical Revival.

The Ahrens-Flaherty score tells the story in song and is an eclectic collection of production numbers, soft, lovely ballads and simple storytelling that together make for a rich musical palette. Choreographer Jazzelyn Goudy’s production numbers are spectacular throughout.

Ahrens and Flaherty originally sited the play in the French Antilles but Director Pascale Florestal, a proud Haitian American, here lists Little Haiti and Haiti in the present.

The residents of the Haitian village can find the joy in everyday life in the village. Some of the residents are darker-skinned, while nearby live those of a lighter hue – “Grand hommes” — who do not mix with them and have been heavily influenced by the French, who colonized the island that was called Saint-Domingue before it became the independent state of Haiti in 1804.

Whatever the color of their skin or their economic circumstances, they dance, fearlessly, joyfully, and the audience is encouraged to join in, according to a program note from director Florestal, for whom this production has been a labor of love as she immerses us in the culture of her parents’ homeland.

At the heart of the piece is the story of Ti Moune, a young peasant girl who follows her heart, even when it leads her away from her village and her family.

Ti Moune is magically saved from a devastating flood by the god Agwe. She is found huddled in a tree, then adopted and raised in a loving home by Mama (Lovely Hoffman) and Ton Ton Julian (Anthony Pires Jr.).

We first meet her as a young girl played by Reagan Masso, but she eventually becomes a beautiful young woman, played by Peli Naomi Woods, a senior at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Woods is a luminous presence throughout, with a winning presence, lovely voice and graceful movement, and she quickly captures every scene she’s in.

She radiates innocence and does not see the differences between her and “the others” and is dreaming about her future (“Waiting for Life”) and the “grand homme” who may be part of it.

The gods are listening (“And the Gods Heard Her Prayer”) and have agreed to play a part in her future.

It comes in the form of a terrible accident that befalls a young man named Daniel Beauxhomme  (Kenny Lee). Beauxhomme, of course, is French for “handsome man” and the lighter-skinned Beauxhommes – who live elsewhere on the island — believe themselves to be superior to the darker-skinned residents.

Ti Moune finds Daniel lying in the road after and tends to him day and night, nursing him back to health until he can rejoin his parents. She falls in love with the boy despite the warnings of all around her that it cannot be and the gods may bring their wrath on the village.

Where there is much light, we also find darkness too, in the form of the God Papa Ge, who offers a proposition that will raise the stakes for both the girl and the boy.

Ahrens and Flaherty’s score is able to change moods abruptly with markedly less joy in numbers such as “The Sad Tale of the “Beauxhommes.” It is a testament to their talent that they can find their footing in a such different worlds as a Caribbean island and the sprawling canvas of “Ragtime.”

David Freeman Coleman leads a tight 6-piece band with special mention to Becky Bass on the steel pan; Bass also plays a “Beauxhommes” narrator/storyteller.

The entire ensemble cast of “Once on This Island” – not a weak link in the bunch — performs with great joy and love for the story and that can’t be faked. And that’s a tribute to the direction of Florestal, whose love for this magical tale is ever-present.

The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Once on This Island.” Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, based on the novel “My Love, My Love,” by Rosa Guy. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Pascale Florestal. Choreography by Jazelynn Goudy. At the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through April 16.

Malik Mitchell, Peli Naomi Woods, Davron S. Monroe, Christina Jones, and Yewande Odetoyinbo in SpeakEasy Stage’s Once on This Island (2022). Photo by Nile Scott Studios.