The musical set to open Aug. 1 at the Trustees Theater is boisterous, colorful and ultimately uplifting. Once on This Island is a singing and dancing delight, yet there is a palpable sense of melancholy backstage.
This is the last city production to be directed by D.J. Queenan, and the actors are all just a little bit sad. Even Queenan feels the sting.
“Sadly, yes, this is my last project with the City of Savannah’s Cultural Arts Theatre,” he says. “Next month, I start my next adventure; teaching theater and acting to the students of the Savannah Country Day School.
“Although I’m greatly looking forward to my newest challenges, it’s with a sense of melancholy that I leave the Cultural Arts Theatre,” Queenan says. “It has been a life-changing experience.”
Ryan McCurdy, who plays Papa Ge, says Queenan’s life isn’t the only one that’s been changed. “I’m doing it because it’s D.J.’s last show,” he says. “I wasn’t going to let it happen without me.
“He’s meant a lot to all of us,” McCurdy says. “None of the recent performing arts renaissance in Savannah would have been able to occur without D.J. at the helm of it.
“He’s leaving the city’s performing arts in so much better shape than he found them,” McCurdy says. “It all goes back to his tireless drive.”
Queenan chose to do Once on This Island as his final production, even though he hasn’t actually seen it on stage. “The music of this piece has always attracted me,” he says.
“It has a score that mixes the classic storytelling of theatre music with the breezy excitement of the Caribbean,” Queenan says. “But it wasn’t until I actually sat down and read the libretto, while listening to the sound track, that I knew it was the right show for us.
“I try hard not to repeat productions,” he says. “There is so much to choose from it would seem silly to repeat if I didn’t have to. I also really enjoy doing shows that I haven’t seen. That way it all comes from a combination of the script, the music, and my imagination.”
The story is set in what is known as Haiti today. “Once on This Island is the musical retelling of Rosa Guys’ beautiful novel My Love, My Love, which finds its inspiration in Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale: The Little Mermaid,” Queenan says.
There also are elements of Romeo and Juliet. “In this rendition, as is true for Ms. Guys’ novel, the story takes place in the French Antilles and surrounds a young peasant girl who saves the life of a young, affluent boy,” Queenan says. “The two of course fall in love, and the story goes on from there.“
When the musical opens, it is a stormy night and a small girl is crying in fear. To comfort her, four storytellers tell her the story of Ti Moune.
Four gods -- Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Agwe, god of Water; Erzulie, goddess of Love; and Papa Ge, Demon of Death -- rule an island where poor peasants worship them. One day, Agwe unleashes a terrible storm, which causes a flood, wiping out many villages.
However, the gods save the life of a little orphan named Ti Moune by placing her in a tree.. She is found and adopted by peasants who live on the left side of the island.
The Grandes Hommes, the lighter-skinned descendants of the original French planters and their slaves, live on the other side of the island. It is one of the Grandes Hommes that Ti Moune falls in love with.
“The music is written by the amazing Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by the equally talented Lynn Ahrens,” Queenan says. “They are also the team that penned such classics as Ragtime, Seussical and, yes, School House Rock.”
While the musical is bright and uplifting, the story behind it is somewhat tragic. “Isn’t love always tragic?” Qieenan asks. “At least on stage. So much of what we learn from theater is what love and more importantly, loving, is worth.”
The cast features familiar faces and intriguing newcomers. “These are some of the most talented local performers I’ve had the pleasure to work to date,” Queenan says. “Brittny Hargrove and Nick Bushkar play the star-crossed lovers. Nick and I have worked together so much that I think he can read my mind! Let’s just say, it’s really comfortable.
“Brittny, on the other hand, is working with the Cultural Arts Theatre for the first time,” Queenan says. “Her voice is exciting and heart-breaking. You’ll fall in love with the little peasant girl that is Brittny’s ‘Ti Moune.’”
Also in the cast are McCurdy, Latrecia Lewis, Lariena Brown and Ron King. “These four powerhouse performers embody the Caribbean gods that shape the lovers’ story,” Queenan says. “They’re delightful and enthralling.”
Warren Heilman is the Musical Director for the production. “This cast can’t miss,” Queenan says.
The only thing wrong with Once on This Island is that darned near everyone gets the name wrong. Even the actors have been calling it One Upon This Island.
“Like peanut butter follows jelly, the word ‘once’ seems forever linked to ‘upon a time,’” Queenan says. “This is the misnomered fate of Once on This Island. The ‘upon a time’ is part of the lingering, unspoken childhood dreams we all still carry.”
While the production will be put on at Trustees Theater, rehearsals have taken place at the Black Box Theatre on Henry Street. “The largest challenge this show faced has been the rehearsal space,” Queenan says. “Transferring something from a small black box theater to the Trustees Theater downtown can require a lot of imagination, creativity and, most of all, patience.”
The effort has been worthwhile, though. “This show is the essence of family theater,” Queenan says. “The themes of love and loyalty speak to the young and old alike as does the plain old-fashioned fun of it all.”
As Papa Ge, McCurdy is the Demon of Death. “It’s based on Vodoun culture and historically significant characters, too,” he says. “It’s like trying to play God in the Garden of Eden. It has so much religious background.”
The gods and goddesses also play storytellers who move the story along. “The show is designed in such a way that all the singers are storytellers first, who become other characters to forward the story,” McCurdy says.
McCurdy describes the musical as “big, boisterous, a little bit demented.”
“There’s a lot of humor,” he says. “The music, even when at its most ponderous and menacing, is so beautiful you can’t help but feeling enlivened by it. Between the dancing and singing, so much is colorful and light, and it’s an overall uplifting show.”
The cast of 24 features 10 dedicated dancers who dance and sing and 14 dedicated singers who sing and act. “Everyone gets along so well, it doesn’t feel like a big cast until you hear everyone singing and realize what a big voice it is,” McCurdy says.
“It’s a simple, sweet story,” McCurdy says. “Footloose is an example of a show that’s big and loud and wild. This is a story of love and redemption without all the whiz, bang, boom, and some of the ham actors like myself are having to hold back.”
McCurdy says no one should miss Once on This Island. “First, it’s D.J.’s last show, so don’t miss it,” he says. “You’re going to be blown away by the dancing and the harmonies are just gorgeous. D.J. has been here for four years and brought more than 11 musicals and four straight plays, and if you haven’t seen one, you owe it to yourself to see what everyone has been talking about.”
Savannah Cultural Arts Theatre: Once on This IslandA Caribbean version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. When: Aug. 1, 2, 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 3 and 10 at 3 p.m.Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St. Cost: $17 general admission; $12 seniors/students.Info: 525-5050 or www.scadboxoffice.com.