Once on This Island

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: (left to right) Alex Newell, Lea Salonga & Merle Dandridge. Photo: Joan Marcus

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ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy
Directed by Michael Arden
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
Circle In The Square
235 West 50th Street
212-239-6200, www.OnceOnThisIsland.com

 

By Scott Harrah

Tales of star-crossed lovers might be nothing new, but director Michael Arden offers a unique twist in this charming, innovative revival of Once On This Island, the 1990 Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty musical, based on a Rosa Guy novel. Set on an island in the French Antilles, this Caribbean fantasy is beautifully re-conceived by Mr. Arden, with clever sets by Dane Laffrey, lavish period costumes by Clint Ramos and imaginative lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. With the help of his scenic and lighting team, Mr. Arden offers a vivid “theater in the round” experience that works well in the confines of Circle in the Square, totally enveloping the audience and making us feel as if we are there on a windswept tropical island, complete with sand, a live goat, water, etc.

The rhythmic score by Ahrens and Flaherty transports us to a mythical time and place with a story paralleling Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Instead of the Montagues and Capulets, we have a beautiful Afro-Caribbean native girl, Ti Moune (the outstanding Hailey Kilgore), rescued from a near-fatal accident during a storm. She is adopted by two islanders, Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin), both of whom raise the orphan child as their own. Later, Ti Moune falls for the lighter-skinned, aristocratic native Daniel (Isaac Powell), an upper-class guy from the other side of the island who lives in a gated community.

Once On This Island relies heavily on the mystical superstition, voodoo and folklore of the French-speaking Caribbean, offering an endless parade of Calypso-infused songs like “We Dance,” “And the Gods Heard Her Prayer,” ‘The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes,” and more. The songs propel the story forward like any well-made musical should, filled with the faith and rituals of the islanders. Granted, there’s a lot of confusing talk about gods and sorcery, but all one needs to believe in is the magic of the music while marveling at Camille A. Brown’s winning choreography.

Although the narrative conflict is fairly standard (dark-skinned Ti Moune can never truly be accepted by lighter-skinned Daniel’s family), the message still packs an emotional punch, considering the current political climate in America. However, under Michael Arden’s trenchant direction, the musical is more about the celebration of life and the gorgeous Afro-Caribbean songbook than anything else, so the story never seems heavy-handed.

This revival works so well thanks to the near-seismic energy of the cast, all brimming with talent. The multi-ethnic cast members gel together marvelously, but a few stand out. Ms. Kilgore gives a vivacious, sincere and truly heartbreaking performance as Ti Moune, the “peasant” girl, but Mr. Powell as Daniel is somewhat forgettable in comparison. Mr. Powell’s Daniel doesn’t always convince us that he’s someone Ti Moune would risk her life for, but without this notion there would be no story. Love perpetuates life, it seems.

Some of the show’s greatest performances are given by supporting cast members, like Tony winner Lea Salonga, bewitching us with her mellifluous voice as goddess Erzulie in such songs as “The Human Heart.” Kenita R. Miller, as Mama Eurlie, is often haunting as she sings of the love she has for Ti Moune, while Alex Newell, as gender-bending Asaka, has the whole house grooving as she belts out the rousing “Mama Will Provide.”

Once On This Island is a colorful, immersive experience for everyone, giving audiences a helluva joyful ride, making it one of the season’s freshest surprises.

 

 

Edited by Scott Harrah
Published December 5, 2017
Reviewed at December 4, 2017 press performance.

 

Once On This Island

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: Hailey Kilgore. Photo: Joan Marcus

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: Lea Salonga. Photo: Joan Marcus

Once On This Island

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: Hailey Kilgore. Photo: Joan Marcus

Once On This Island

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: Kenita R. Miller. Photo: Joan Marcus

Once On This Island

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: Quentin Earl Darrington. Photo: Joan Marcus

Once On This Island

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: Phillip Boykin. Photo: Joan Marcus

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: Isaac Powell & Merle Dandridge. Photo: Joan Marcus

 

Once On This Island

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: (left to right) Emerson Davis, Lea Salonga, Alex Newell, Quentin Earl Darrington & Merle Dandridge. Photo: Joan Marcus

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: Isaac Powell & Quentin Earl Darrington. Photo: Joan Marcus

Once On This Island

‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’: The cast. Photo: Joan Marcus

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