Many years ago, the great singer Gerard Souzay, in a recital that included Schumann and Faure, sang a group of folk songs. Sensing that the audience might find this strange, he explained that musicians are always searching for the genuine. Nothing, he said, is more authentic by definition than folk songs.
"Genuine" and "authentic" are not words that apply to Lynn Ahrens' and Stephen Flaherty's "Once on This Island," which aims for folk and comes out fake.
Set in the French Antilles, "Island" tells of a dark-skinned peasant girl who finds a light-skinned, wealthy boy who has been severely injured in a car crash. She nurses him back to health, they fall in love, but he rejects her to marry the light-skinned girl to whom he was betrothed in childhood. The peasant girl does what any reasonable person would do in these circumstances: She turns into a tree.
If the music and lyrics had any depth, this unexpected transformation might have mythical weight. When I saw the show last spring at Playwrights Horizons, it seemed "skillful, inventive, intelligent, accomplished, clever, artful and so forth," but I went on to say "at no time does the show seem more than an exercise in creating musical theater."
One wants to be generous to young writers, especially in a setting like Playwrights, where the subscription audience is also inclined to be indulgent. Seeing it a second time, alas, what initially struck me as artful merely seems arty, and the lack of a genuine emotional core is even more apparent.
Too often, as you look at the stage, you see the cast in the poses of "happy natives." The movements of Graciela Daniele has given them are drawn from a vocabulary limited both by her understanding of "folk" and by the repetitive, mechanical quality of Flaherty's music. Ahrens' lyrics, which initially seemed carefully circumscribed to meet a concept of faux-naif, now seem merely arch and coy.
Implicit in the limitations Ahrens and Flaherty have set themselves is a condescension toward the characters, as if they might be incapable of full-throated lyricism. The cast's obvious charm is restricted by the pidgin quality of the score.
That macaw-hued and whirling Caribbean musical fairy tale, "Once on This Island," which started life at Playwrights Horizons last season, has now dashed onto Broadway at the Booth Theater. Small-scale in size, yet big in spirit, it makes a cheerful and unexpected opening to Broadway's musical season.
The 90-minute, intermissionless show, which has book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, is set on an island very much like Haiti. It tells in song and dance of a young peasant girl's love for the son of a powerful landowner - not only social differences but racial differences separate the two, as the girl is black, and the boy, a scion of the ruling class, and virtually a prince, is mulatto.
It has weathered the sea-change between off-Broadway and Broadway well, and, in particular, the permanent set by Loy Acenas (slightly more elaborate here, I think) is definitely shown up to more advantage on the larger stage, as are Judy Dearing's elaborate costumes.
The show's weaknesses - that faux naif look (imagine paint-by-number Haitian primitives), its psuedo-folklorist story, its standard-issue Caribbean music, and its staging, which is reminiscent of Katherine Dunham on a slick night - are still evident, yet, again, it retains its earlier attractions.
The relentlessly pastiche style of the music and lyrics (mercilessly exposed by the issue of the original cast recording on RCA Victor) is adroitly maintained in the equally derivative but equally lively staging and choreography of Graciela Daniele.
But the evening's most singular virtue is the performance of the small, hand-picked cast. La Chanze is as alive as a flame as the heroine Ti Moune, while Jerry Dixon makes an attractively stuffed-shirt hero, Kecia Lewis-Evans scores heavily as Mother Earth, Eric Riley offers a smooth-smirking Demon of Death, while Sheila Gibbs and Ellis E. Williams prove effectively heartfelt as Ti Moune's foster-parents.
''Once on This Island,'' first produced by Playwrights Horizons, has reopened at the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street. Following are excerpts from Frank Rich's review, which appeared in The New York Times on May 7.
In ''Once on This Island,'' the stage has found its own sugar-and-cartoon-free answer to ''The Little Mermaid.'' A 90-minute Caribbean fairy tale told in rousing song and dance, this show is a joyous marriage of the slick and the folkloric, of the hard-nosed sophistication of Broadway musical theater and the indigenous culture of a tropical isle. No doubt the evening will nettle purists who insist that all American musicals be urbane or that all foreign entertainments exhibited in New York be home grown. Most everyone else is likely to emerge from the theater ready to dance down the street.
The parallel between ''The Little Mermaid'' and ''Once on This Island'' is not invoked flippantly. As the songs for the Disney film were provided by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, of ''Little Shop of Horrors,'' so the authors of this musical are Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), a similarly smart Off Broadway team. What's more, ''Once on This Island,'' which has been adapted from a novel by the Trinidad-born Rosa Guy, owes its own debt to Hans Christian Andersen. Set in the French Antilles, Ms. Guy's deeply felt tale of the romance between a black peasant girl, Ti Moune (La Chanze), and a worldly mulatto aristocrat, Daniel Beauxhomme (Jerry Dixon), is a revisionist ''Little Mermaid'' in which class and racial differences, rather than the sea, pull the star-crossed lovers asunder.
In the most effervescent achievement of her career, the director and choreographer Graciela Daniele stages ''Once on This Island'' with wall-to-wall dancing, movement and mime. From the first number, titled ''We Dance'' and reminiscent in spirit of Bob Fosse's ''Magic to Do'' in ''Pippin,'' the audience is drawn into the evening's once-upon-a-time storytelling style and fantastical atmosphere. Yet to come are high-stepping, swivel-hipped calypso routines, ecstatic ritual dances to demanding gods, a rollicking Caribbean counterpart to ''Follow the Yellow Brick Road,'' and even a delicate European waltz in the elegant hotel that serves as Daniel's princely palace.
The staging is inseparable from the work of three superlative designers - Loy Arcenas (sets), Judy Dearing (costumes) and Allen Lee Hughes (lighting) - who achieve with actors what Disney can do with animation or Julie Taymor with puppets. When Daniel races his sports car around the island, Mr. Dixon serves as both vehicle and driver, running about the stage in a white linen suit, twin flashlights illuminating his winding road. Rainstorms arrive as a parade of dancers crowned by magical umbrellas dripping silver. Jungle wildlife materializes through costumes, masks and headdresses of hallucinatory design.
Mr. Arcenas encloses the show within a floor-to-ceiling mural emblazoned with faux-primitive flora and fauna, a tropical setting imagined in the Tahitian idiom of Gauguin, with the palette expanded to the cobalt blues and iridescent fuchsias of Matisse and Bonnard. That Mr. Arcenas would present the tropics as Post-Impressionists might have imagined them is in keeping with the songs. Though the authors have borrowed freely from the musical culture of their setting, they do not pretend to authenticity, choosing instead to filter the story's environment through their own sensibility.
Mr. Flaherty's lush, melodic music goes native in the way Richard Rodgers went ''Oriental'' when writing ''Bali Ha'i'' and ''The March of the Siamese Children.'' In her lyrics and very spare dialogue, Ms. Ahrens doesn't make the mistake of writing cutesy mock-dialect. Her words are simple, direct and poignant. Papa Ge, the Demon of Death played with sinuous Sportin' Life bravura by Eric Riley, declares himself ''the secret of life nobody wants to learn . . . the car racing toward distant shores.'' When Ti Moune leaves home to pursue her love, her heartbroken parents (Sheila Gibbs and Ellis E. Williams) sing a tender yet guilt-inducing farewell: ''What you are, we made you/What we gave, you took.''
Before the show ends, nearly each performer in the lithe, full-voiced ensemble of 11 breaks out of the chorus to shine. The most ethereal presences belong to La Chanze and Nikki Rene as the two very different women with claims to Daniel's love. Kecia Lewis-Evans brings down the house as the gospel-belting earth mother who helps ease Ti Moune into the woods and out again on the path to the fulfillment of her romantic dreams.
That path, of course, does not always run smooth. ''Once on This Island'' has the integrity of genuine fairy tales, in that it doesn't lead to a saccharine ending but to a catharsis, a transcendent acceptance of the dust-to-dust continuity of life and death. ''Why We Tell the Story'' is the concluding song for the evening's storytellers, and one of those reasons is that ''our lives become the stories that we weave.'' As the story and its tellers at last come full circle in ''Once on This Island,'' the audience feels the otherworldly thrill of discovering the fabric of its own lives in an enchanted tapestry from a distant shore.