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Family feud

Rosa Guy's Mystic musical

by Bill Rodriguez

MYSTIC FALLS. By Rosa Guy. Directed by Elmo-Terry Morgan. Music by Bill Toles. With Nina Freeman, Raffini, Janell Baptista, Kevin Oliveria, Cilla Bento, Luis Pagan, Theodore Fleming, Laura Rubin, Misty Wilson. At Rites & Reason Theatre through May 25.

In the American popular imagination, Trinidad has long been peopled by a joyful, Calypso-singing folk, colorfully garbed and without a care in the world. Work-in-progress Mystic Falls, by Rosa Guy, keeps the joy but tosses out the stereotypes in a premiere production by Rites & Reason Theatre, the Brown research theater. The musical and its many characters are nothing if not complex.

The first two of its dozen songs has lyrics by Guy, the first of which strikes and sustains a note of easy elation that the rest of the musical tries hard to build upon. The song is "Mystic Falls Come Wit' Me" and relies on the catchy refrain "Jump up joo-vay" -- "jour ouvert" is French for opening of the day, a traditional shout on Carnival Monday, when costumed revelers pour into the streets. That makes for a directness and simplicity hard to match as Trinidad-born Guy adds villagers and ancient spirits and enough conflicts and aspirations to bulge the covers of one of her many novels -- one of which, My Love, My Love, was adapted for Broadway in 1990.

In Mystic Falls we watch a long-simmering inter-family feud boiling over, a couple of young love matches running their courses, ghosts mingling with the villagers and guiding their actions, natural disasters striking, and off- island successes luring people out of their tropical paradise.

(A caution: despite the glossary in the program and dialect coaching, the language often is tough to follow, especially at the beginning, when there is so much vital back story for us to keep track of.)

As the tale opens, drought has been withering the island for five years. Tsk-tsking over local troubles for far longer are two ancient spirits, Vexelia (Raffini) and Diablo (Nina Freeman), dressed in the tattered garb of Carnival celebrants. (A nice touch is how characters talk and argue with the ancients as though they are fellow villagers.) The topic of current concern is a dispute between the Watlins and the Santiagos over which family really owns Mystic Falls, a now-parched water course of financial as well as spiritual value. Patriarch Reginald Watlin (Theodore Fleming) has a hot temper and is predisposed to shooting off a gun as well his mouth when the subject comes up. His Santiago nemesis is Antonio (Kevin Oliveira), whose style is to scheme rather than get violent, a crafty gleam in his eye.

The one voice of reason amidst all this greed and enmity is that of Raleigh Santiago (Janell Baptista), who has been lamenting that property on the unnamed Caribbean island has been bought up, with hotels and resorts taking over and working men like himself (he wears a carpenter apron throughout the show) finding jobs only as servants. That old story. To Raleigh the problem has struck especially close to home, since his father has decided to give his contested ownership of the falls to younger son Denzil (Luis Pagan), who has moved to New York and arranged with off-islanders to sell it for a fortune. When we finally meet the cocky and much-talked-about Denzil, a brief but illuminating description by him sums up the state of mind he typifies: when he arrived in New York City from the poor island, he went to the top of the tallest building to talk to God, who told him he could accomplish whatever he set out to do. A related characterization that succeeds is that of his mother, Aida (Cilla Bento), who proudly wears the high-heel shoes he brought her and dreams of strutting proudly down Manhattan sidewalks.

Director Elmo-Terry Morgan collaborates on most of the songs with co-director Marsha Z. West; Bill Toles wrote the music. The impulse to sell away the island piece by piece is gotten across well in "Workin' Mahn's Dream," in which villagers see it's "time to grab a Yankee opportunity." Some other songs carry us and the story along nicely, such as "Santiago Men De So Sweet," which continues: "one smile knock you offa your feet." The love songs are more problematical, though, since there's too much else going on to develop those relationships adequately. Try this on for size: Raleigh Santiago loves Diane Watlin (Laura Rubin), but she has a thing for Denzil, who is seduced by her sister Flora (Misty Wilson), who is possessed by the evil spirit of her mother, Marquita (Pamela Lambert). When a musical plays musical chairs with love relationships, that better be all it tries to do.

To freshen the metaphor, Mystic Falls unfortunately tries to keep too many balls in the air. So either the arcs are too short to impress us or are so high we lose track of them. The musical is filigreed with so many details and convolutions that it seems like it's been slavishly adapted from a novel. There is room in this musical for an inter-generational saga, a tale of socio-economic ferment, or a series of convoluted romantic entanglements, but not all three. However, as a production still in gestation, Mystic Falls still has the opportunity to decide what it wants to be.

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