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Paper Mill Closes Out Season

"Once on This Island" features an ethnic cast with Caribbean rhythms in a one-act 90 minute island breeze.

Paper Mill Playhouse is closing out its 2011-12 season with a charming musical that proves this big revival hall can still think outside the box and give us something a little different.

The big Millburn stage typically sticks to proven material such as Broadway blockbusters and the occasional world premiere that comes with a built-in audience (including adaptations of TV standards such as “Happy Days” and Little House on the Prairie,” not to mention their “High School Musical” and “Newsies” partnerships with Disney).

But as spring gives way to summer vacation, Paper Mill has chosen to revive a lesser-known musical, “Once on This Island,” which features a multi-ethnic cast brightening the stage with colorful Caribbean-inspired rhythms and melodies.

It will be interesting to see if this production can match the box-office punch of standards such as “The Sound of Music” and “A Chorus Line” (both on next year’s schedule).

After seeing it on Friday evening, however, I can honestly say it’s an inspired choice, admirably presented and easily recommended.

While it may not be on the tip of tongues of most theater fans, “Once on This Island” does arrive in Millburn with an enviable pedigree. The original 1990 production was nominated for eight Tonys, including Best Musical, and the original creative team of Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), best-known for their collaboration on “Ragtime,” have reimagined their colorful tale for this revival. After a respectable run of 469 performances on Broadway, the production moved to London’s West End, where it won an Olivier award for Best New Musical.

This production also boasts of direction by Thomas Kail, who recently scored a Broadway triumph with another under-the-radar musical, “In the Heights,” which would be another splendid choice for a future Paper Mill season, if any of the decision makers there are taking hints.

The small, splendid cast features a ringer and likely future Broadway star in Syesha Mercado, a former “American Idol” finalist, whose performance suggests that she’s found the work she was born to do.

Mercado plays Ti Moune, another soul in search of her purpose on earth. The story, which borrows from both “The Little Mermaid” and “Romeo and Juliet,” takes place on an island in the French Antilles (Haiti is suggested), where dark-skinned native people are the oppressed servant class to the island’s elite, who are descended from its French conquerors. The ensemble cast of 11 (10 adults and charming young actress Courtney Harris,who plays Ti Moune as a child) gathers to spin the tale as an island fable that champions love as the most powerful force on earth.

Ti Moune is the orphan survivor of a deadly storm who is taken in by a poor but loving couple (Kevin R. Free and Kenita R. Miller) who raise her well despite a lack of food and shelter. Meanwhile, the gods who overlook their island, including Erzulie (Saycon Sengbloh), the Goddess of Love, and Papa Ge (Alan Mingo Jr.), the Demon of Death, embroil Ti Moune in their disagreement about what is more powerful, love or death. It’s worth mentioning that despite being appropriate for most children, the story does get a bit abstract and melodramatic at times, particularly the surprising but ultimately uplifting climax.

Her test is manifest in the form of Daniel, a handsome young man from the upper class who crashes his car near her village. Ti Moune saves him and, recognizing this act as the purpose the gods have given her, falls in love with him and follows him back to civilization to become his bride.

Unfortunately, the “Romeo and Juliet” aspect of the tale kicks in and casts Ti Moune into rough waters. The rest of the story, well, you know enough already. If you want to know more, you’ll have to buy a ticket.

Rest assured, though, it’s a warm, enjoyable journey, full of dancing rhythms, joyful melodies and bright harmonies. Every cast member gets to stand out on their own, but Mercado’s voice, a powerful instrument tempered by deep emotion, shakes the rafters.

The set is modest by Paper Mill standards, with trees and seascapes represented by simple props, but is an ideal fit for the story and creative enough to keep the audience from feeling cheated.

And it’s a treat to hear bongos and steel drums rising up from Paper Mill’s orchestra pit.

At 90 minutes, this vibrant one-act musical breezes by like a summer wind and feels nearly as good. And by the time it’s over, you’ll be in the mood for the beach and the Boardwalk. 

“Once on this Island” continues through June 24 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. Tickets are $25 to $96. For information, call 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org.

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