The musical Once on This Island has held a special place in my heart since I saw the original production back in 1990. The infectious music and romantic tale brought a unique temperament to a traditional medium. The show has lost none of its luster over the years, and in this revival production the beauty of this musical has been given its full due and then some.
It tells the legend of Ti Moune (an incandescent Hailey Kilgore), an orphaned peasant girl raised by Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller), who falls in love with a handsome, wealthy boy Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell) from the city on the other side of the island. Separated by only a few miles of sand, they are nonetheless worlds apart. Ti Moune's love for Daniel is so strong that when he returns to his mansion home, she cannot bear to stay behind. Guided by four spirits: Erzulie, a warm and ethereal Goddess of Love (Lea Salonga), Asaka, the irrepressible Mother of the Earth (Alex Newell), Agwé, the God of water, dignified and thoughtful (Quentin Earl Darrington) and Papa Ge, the mesmerizing spirit of death (Merle Dandridge), Ti Moune embarks on a journey to uncertain future. She has made a promise she will be asked to keep, but can love conquer all, even death?
The ensemble, aptly referred to as 'storytellers' in the program, contribute in myriad ways to the performance, handing off the narrative to each other in a verbal dance that never allows the story line to drop. In a complete performance, they also create a living context. They are the birds; they are the night; they are the wind.
Using the theater in the round space to full advantage, director Michael Arden and set designer Dane Laffrey have embraced every inch of space, creating a unified world for performers and audience alike. With an upturned boat here, fallen tree there, laundry fluttering on clothes lines extending to the walls of the theater, we are in the storm-tossed French Antilles in an instant. With ironic timeliness, the detritus-strewn sands and fallen trees echo images we have seen all too frequently in recent months, in places like Houston and Puerto Rico.
The antitode to tragedy is to dance, to make music, to tell stories, to live in brilliant color, which these islanders do with abandon. Performing complex choreography by Camille A. Brown, as if the dance were the inspiration of the moment, with authentic gesture and of dazzling originality, the cast infuses every moment with spirit, emotion and music. Everywhere you look something catches your eye. Costumes by Clint Ramos vividly define the two worlds of ragtag poor and opulent wealthy, in rich bursts of color echoed throughout the set design. Lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and sound designer Peter Hylenski evoke sun and storm to great, even visceral, effect. As you ride the wave, you cannot help but ask -- How did they pack so much legend, so much music, so much dance into 90 minutes?
In Once on This Island, Director Michael Arden has created an island of joy at the Circle in the Square. I cannot praise this production enough. Every single element blends perfectly to bring this already beautiful musical to dazzling, joyous life.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"All I can say is that after a dismal theatrical fall, in which even the highlights seemed ashen, what a delight it is to enter the world of Once on This Island."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Broadway’s bewitching revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once on This Island is filled with beauty."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"After seeing the imaginative and dynamic Once on This Island, you may feel that once is not enough."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Together with his resourceful design team and cast of expressive, vocally gifted performers, Arden has approached the piece with the nurturing hand it requires — striking a balance between child-like story theater and folkloric ritual with a fantastical dash of dangerous voodoo. It's a show about the healing power of storytelling, which makes it perfect for these grim times. Themes concerning the divisions of class, race, skin-color pigmentation and wealth also give the material timeless currency."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"Just what the weary world needs now – an uplifting revival of Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s lush and lovely 1990 musical fable about the enduring force of true love."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...