Tony Award nominee Michael Arden directs the Broadway revival of Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens' much-loved musical Once On This Island.
The musical originally premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1990 and transferred to Broadway in October of the same year. It ran for a total of 469 performances and received an impressive eight Tony Award nominations including "Best Musical". The West End premiere followed in 1994 and ultimately won the Olivier Award for "Best New Musical" at the 1995 ceremony.
In order to find the show's leading star to play Ti Moune, an international casting search was carried out until Arden found 18 year old Hailey Kilgore, who made her Broadway debut in the coveted role. She was backed up by a healthy dose of star power with the likes of Tony Award winner Lea Salonga and "Glee" star Alex Newell, taking on the roles of Erzulie (Goddess of Love) and Asaka (Mother of the Earth), respectively.
Arden's production in the round is staged on a sandy beach, following the aftermath of a natural disaster. The island natives recount the folktale of Ti Moune, a peasant orphan girl who rescues the life of - and falls in love with - a light-skinned boy named Daniel from the richer class. To her adoptive parents' dismay, she sets out on a journey to re-unite herself with Daniel, guided by a quartet of mercurial gods - Erzulie (Goddess of Love), Agwe (God of Water), Papa Ge (Demon of Death), and Asaka (Mother of the Earth). Their would-be union defies the strict rulings on class and color on the isle, but can love ultimately conquer all?
Flaherty & Ahrens' score is intoxicating with Caribbean influences and includes toe-tapping uptempo numbers such as “We Dance” and “Mama Will Provide” (with Alex Newell bringing the house down with the latter), as well as beautifully moving ballads like “The Human Heart”. Arden's gradual transformation of the islanders into their respective characters in the folktale is expertly visualised with the aid of acclaimed costume designer Clint Ramos, utilising items you might find simply washed up onto a beach. Kudos also go to the production team for creating an equally exhilirating and unnerving tropical storm within the confines of a theatre... Breathtaking! And Camille A. Brown's choreography is joyously infectious and sure to be a real contender by the time Awards Season rolls in.
Once on This Island is not only yet another reminder of the importance of diversity on Broadway, but could well be regarded as the surprise hit of the 2017-2018 Broadway season.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)