Love crashes into you like a tidal wave in "Once on This Island."

This time Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the Broadway tunesmiths best known for the epic "Ragtime," tickle the fancy with a Caribbean fable. A bittersweet spin on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," this is an exuberant fairy tale about the life of the peasants caught between a roiling sea and a sky filled with fickle gods. Gently directed by Robert Kelley, "Once" is an enchanting parable about the price of love, the resilience of the poor and the inanity of the rich, shot through with an infectious calypso-reggae beat.

THEATREWORKSTi Moune (Salisha Thomas) calls to the godsin TheatreWorks’ production of the romantic fable "Once On This Island."
THEATREWORKS Ti Moune (Salisha Thomas) calls to the gods in TheatreWorks' production of the romantic fable "Once On This Island." ( tw )

Based on Rosa Guy's 1985 novel "My Love, My Love: Or, the Peasant Girl," this yarn is spun to calm a frightened child (an appealing Khalia Davis) in the middle of a storm somewhere in the French Antilles. The villagers gather round to tell the bittersweet story of Ti Moune (Salisha Thomas), a lovely orphan rescued by an old couple, Tonton Julian (Berwick Haynes) and Mama Euralie (Dawn L. Troupe) with little to give but their hearts. They raise her to trust the gods, find joy in the simple pleasures of the island and also to know her place. They warn her that there is another world on the other side of the island, the world of the powerful "grandhommes" who despise the peasants for the dark color of their skin.


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But Ti Moune believes she has been kissed by fate, that the force of her faith in herself can conquer all evils. It's that fortitude that leads her to save a man on the verge of dying. When Daniel Beauxhomme (Paris Nix) wrecks his car on a rainy night, she nurses him back to health. She leaves her elderly parents and risks her own welfare to tend to him. They tumble into each other's arms, and she believes the spell will last forever.

Nix captures just the right mix of narcissism and wonder in "Some Girls," as Daniel sweeps Ti Moune off her feet and out of her depth. Troupe is heart-melting as the mother vainly trying to spare her child the inevitable pain in the haunting "Ti Moune." But it's Thomas, who exudes innocence and passion in every lyric, who gives this sad Cinderella story its sparkle. She's also lithe and graceful in the show's galvanic dance sequences (choreography by Gerry McIntyre). Indeed, the island rhythm is so infectious here, it's hard to believe this once upon a time might not end well.

Alas, the gods have other plans. Tricky Papa Ge (Max Kumangai), the demon of death, appears to Ti Moune and offers to spare Daniel in return for her soul. Emboldened by the strength given to her by the Earth goddess Asaka (Safiya Fredericks), she agrees and seals her fate. Ti Moune comes to learn that some sacrifice goes unrewarded, some loyalty is not repaid.

Lovely and lilting as the musical numbers are, the true beauty of the story lies in its darkness. Ahrens and Flaherty do not shy away from the politics of colonialism or the insidious nature of racism. Kelley wisely respects the quiet intimacy of the musical, never giving in to the urge to hard-sell its delicate charms.

Make no mistake, however, death is far from the end for Ti Moune. Her tragedy leads the way to a transformational ritual that ends this bedtime story on a note of hope.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her reviews at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

'Once on this island'

Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, presented by
TheatreWorks

Through: March 30
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road,
Palo Alto
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $19-$73, 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org