REVIEW: A gorgeous, creative “Once On This Island” is back on Broadway
When a Broadway revival of the beloved 1990 Ahrens and Flaherty musical “Once On This Island” (a popular choice for community theatre and high schools around the country) was announced in August 2016, the creative team could not know about the devastation Hurricanes Irma and Maria would wreak upon the Caribbean more than a year later, nor the outcome of the 2016 election mere months away, which brought long-simmering issues of race, gender, and inequality exploding to the forefront of the national conversation.
Thank the Gods, a gorgeous, creative, and first-rate production of this musical gem opened tonight at the Circle in the Square Theatre, reimagining the piece for 2017 while honoring its core celebration of love, sacrifice, and the power of storytelling.
Based on the novel “My Love, My Love: Or, The Peasant Girl” (1985) by Trinidadian-American author Rosa Guy (1922-2012), “Once On This Island” is a tropical re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”, set in the French Antilles.
Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore)—the role famously created by a then-unknown LaChanze in 1990—is a peasant girl orphaned by a storm as a child and taken in by Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin). Now grown—“waiting for life to begin”—she prays for a quartet of Gods to show her life’s meaning: Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Alex Newell, “Glee”), Agwe, God of Water (Quentin Earl Darrington, “Cats”), Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Lea Salonga, “Miss Saigon”), and Papa Ge, Demon of Death (Merle Dandridge). They grant her wish, conspiring for Ti Moune to save the life of Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell), a wealthy, light-skinned boy from the other side of the island, when his car crashes during a storm. The two fall in love, but are doomed by powerful racial and socio-economic divides, and, in the end (spoiler alert) she gives her life for his.
A radiant, 18-year old Haley Kilgore—herself adopted as a child—was selected to play Ti Moune following an international search. She leads a superb cast of 20 who sing and dance (choreography by Camille A. Brown) ecstatically to Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ (“Ragtime”, “Anastasia”) catchy, Calypso-driven score, featuring new orchestrations from Michael Starobin and AnnMarie Milazzo. The show is nearly entirely sung, and its long-unsung hero is Ms. Ahrens, whose lyrics are crisp and clever, steering clear of too much abstraction or obviousness, while maintaining the vibrant, fantastical, and poetic spirit of the tale.
I was a bit nervous when Michael Arden, a white man, was tapped to direct this production, but where his 2015 Deaf West Theater revival of “Spring Awakening” was lacking in inspiration, “Once On This Island” is a generous feast of creative and inventive staging in service to a fresh perspective on the material that is in conversation with contemporary issues.
The concept of the 1990 premiere invoked the bright and wistful island impressionism of Gauguin. In 2017, audiences at the Circle and the Square encounter a dirty, storm-ravaged, and polluted beach populated by a resilient but weathered people, a live goat, and some hens (scenic design by Dane Laffrey).
The aroma of roasted bananas and vegetables from a makeshift table-top kitchen side-stage wafts through the air as volunteers from Doctors Without Borders mill about the locals, distributing water and supplies to a community dressed in second-hand clothing bearing brand logos of yore and American sports teams. After a clever bit that substitutes for your standard “cell phones off” announcement, the show begins with a crash of thunder, a frightened girl, and the villagers’ attempt to soothe her by telling the story of Ti Moune.
Over the ensuing 90 minutes, Mr. Arden provides the best, most total use of the Circle in the Square’s in-the-round stage that I have ever seen. The action can get a little too busy at times, leaving audience members unsure where to look, but ravishing performances all around make up for any of Mr. Arden’s over-enthusiastic theatricality. Of note are Ms. Kilgore’s confident, star-turn as Ti Moune; Alex Newell’s knockout, drag performance as Asaka, Mother of the Earth—“Mama Will Provide” was the showstopper of this production; and Kenita R. Miller’s Mama Euralie, who broke my heart.
The setting and bookending of the production makes for a powerful evening of theatre that is relevant and uplifting. While the story of Ti Moune itself is a bit antique for modern sensibilities—the young woman, scorned by her true love because of her dark skin and peasant-stature, dies and becomes a tree to shade the children of her lover and his wife (yikes!)—it is nonetheless beautiful, and teaches a lesson about the insidiousness of colorism and classism.
One of my favorite things about the theatre is its ability to transport you to places far away or unknown. Attending “Once On This Island” is a joyous voyage through the rich and gorgeous oral storytelling traditions of the French Antilles. And it is one I suggest you take.
Bottom Line: thank the Gods, a gorgeous, creative, and first-rate production of the musical gem “Once On This Island” is back on Broadway, smartly re-imagined for 2017 and featuring ravishing performances and inventive staging that provide for a joyous and uplifting evening of theatre.
“Once On This Island”
Circle in the Square Theatre
235 West 50th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: December 3, 2017