Once on This Island
Michael Arden reimagines Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's mythological musical.
Miraculous things happen when you corral a team of talented artists and let them loose in a sandbox. Not a metaphorical sandbox — a literal pit of sand that gets kicked around, rained upon, and trampled by a wandering goat throughout Michael Arden's chill-inducing revival of Once on This Island at Circle in the Square Theatre. Whoever cleans up Dane Laffrey's ambitious set after every performance does not have an enviable job, but the muddy wreckage left behind feels akin to the scars rendered by a life well lived.
Hailey Kilgore is the one who bears many of these scars herself, opening fresh wounds every night in a stunning Broadway debut as the orphan peasant Ti Moune. She may be following in the footsteps of Tony Award-winning actor LaChanze, who originated the role in 1990, but Kilgore stands securely in her own shoes with a powerful voice and a character she's chiseled out for herself. Her Ti Moune is naïve, but not ignorant. An impetuous young girl with a desire for experience (which she sings about beautifully in her introductory song "Waiting for Life"), her energy is so mesmerizing she's nearly persuasive in her conviction that she's not on a fool's journey. Though, with love at the helm, she must be.
Based on Rosa Guy's 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl, Once on This Island is a Caribbean retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid with the star-crossed lovers of Romeo & Juliet blended in. In 1990, the musical marked the auspicious Broadway debuts of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist and book writer Lynn Ahrens (also currently represented on Broadway by Anastasia). It was their first Broadway score, but arguably their best (though Ragtime is the one that famously earned them a Tony Award in 1998), with music that digs its heels into the earth one minute and floats into the heavens the next. Paired with Arden's ensemble-oriented direction, Camille A. Brown's unchained choreography, and a near-perfect cast, the production (like Ti Moune herself) walks the delicate line between the minuscule and the infinite.
We first meet Ti Moune in childhood after she survives a devastating hurricane sent by Agwe, God of Water (Quentin Earl Darrington). Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian (a pair of touching performances by Kenita Miller and Phillip Boykin) discover her in a tree, and, believing the gods spared her life for a reason, raise her as their own. Ti Moune, meanwhile, awaits the day she can know the purpose of her salvation, eventually finding that purpose in Daniel (a charismatic and silvery-voiced Isaac Powell). A member of the wealthy, light-skinned, and French-descended grands hommes class, Daniel is deviously put in Ti Moune's path by the gods with the help of yet another rain storm that sends his car careening off the road (Darrington singing a hair-raising rendition of "Rain").
Ti Moune discovers the injured Daniel and decides her purpose is to nurse him back to health and ultimately marry him, regardless of the impenetrable class divide — not to mention the fact that Papa Ge, Demon of Death, comes to claim Daniel's life (Merle Dandridge is flawlessly menacing in the role). However, as suggested by Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Lea Salonga with a voice that overflows with tenderness), perhaps love is more powerful than even death. Ti Moune crash-tests that thesis in the most heart-breaking way, recklessly leaving her home to join Daniel on the other side of the island. However, as is often the case, the painful journey is accompanied by heart-swelling joy.
And speaking of heart-swelling joy, let's take a moment to acknowledge Once on This Island's showstopping goddess Alex Newell. As Asaka (Mother of the Earth), he turns the already crowd-pleasing number "Mama Will Provide" into a stratospheric performance that displays not only Newell's indestructible vocal chords but the attention to detail he's lent to a maternal character easily painted with broad strokes.
Specificity is a consistent theme in Arden's production — from Clint Ramos's fabulous costumes, which dress performers for both "then" and "now" (Salonga is dressed like a medical volunteer from Médecins Sans Frontières in the "now" incarnation of the Goddess of Love), to Cookie Jordan's character-shaping hair and makeup, and the coordination between sound designer Peter Hylenski and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, who create a storm that literally blows throughout the entire theater. Every element not only tells a story but carries a palpable reverence for the divine art of storytelling. After all, you may never go fist to fist with the Demon of Death, but a single story can make you immortal. Here's hoping this revival of Once on This Island is the tale that will get a taste of Broadway's eternal life.