“There is an island where rivers run deep” begins the radiant ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, and under Michael Arden’s imaginative direction, this inspiring musical fable flows beautifully, magically, from beginning to end. Combining a tragic tale of young love with the mystery and wonder of legend, this first major revival of the 1990 musical reveals more rhythms in its storytelling thorough its pulsing, new staging than ever before.
Based on the 1985 novel “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy, adapted by Lynn Ahrens, who also wrote the lyrics - with music by her partner, composer Stephen Flaherty - ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is set in the Caribbean French Antilles. Staged in the round at Circle in the Square, the design transports theatergoers immediately to the beach tropics – sand covered stage, with water-lapping shore - where locals meander in everyday routines. In the rousing number “We Dance”, reveling in a zest for life, they begin the folkloric legend of Ti Moune, an orphan mysteriously discovered in a tree having survived a massive storm. With the island gods - protective and fateful both - hovering over her life, Ti is raised by dark-skinned peasants, largely of African descent. On the other side of the island live the wealthy islanders, fairer-skinned, identifying with their French lineage. When Daniel, scion of a wealthy family, is found comatose from a car accident near her village far from his city home, Ti, with trepidation from her parents, nurses him after promising the gods she would give her life for his recovery. Romance blossoms but when Daniel is rescued by his family’s guards, Ti, at great risk, travels by foot over the island mountains to find him in his family’s palatial residence, where they become lovers, and she gets used to urban life, although never accepted by society. Soon, though, Ti’s happiness is threatened and her pact with the gods to sacrifice her life for her love tested, too.
The cast shifts roles as storytellers and as players in Ti Moune’s story. The book is largely sung-through with 20 songs, which comprise the first Broadway success for collaborators Ahrens and Flaherty, best known for their Tony-winning RAGTIME and, currently on Broadway, ANASTASIA. Combining calypso beats, reggae rhythms, and tender ballads, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND emerges here with new appeal, more spontaneous and more intimate than before. Chris Fenwick, with his vibrant music supervision, and Annemarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin, with their colorful, new orchestrations, deserve much credit for this.
Broadway unknown, 18-year-old Hailey Kilgore, discovered after an extensive search, as Ti Moune, is a marvel, conveying open-faced zeal with charming audacity, claiming the role as her own in the early number “Waiting for Life” with ensemble and then stirringly later in a solo reprise. Phil Boykin and Kenita Miller as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents shine in the score’s most popular ballad, “Ti Moune” with its wistful, bittersweet melody. Lea Salonga (herself at 18, the original Kim in 1989’s SAIGON) as the god Erzulie, protector of Ti Moune, with a matured but still crystal-clear soprano, contrasts perfectly with Merle Dandridge, with a menacing alto, as PapaGi, the god of fate, who tests Ti Moune’s bargain for love. The showstopper, however, belongs unquestionably to R&B/disco singer Alex Newell who, as the goddess Asaka, channels Aretha Franklin, bringing his own gospel power to a diva level in “Mama Will Provide.”
Director Arden, who wowed Broadway two years ago with Def West’s revival of SPRING AWAKENING, optimizes the textures and colors of Dane Laffrey’s gorgeous set. The theater walls are festooned with laundry lines of colorful clothing and Christmas lights, the playing area a beach, littered with household and everyday relics. A real goat joins the action, too. Arden’s imaginative, non-stop movement is best displayed when the cast recreates Daniel’s speeding car with driftwood and metal parts they pick up from the beach. Arden integrates Camille Brown’s exuberant choreography, culminating in the spectacular “Ti Moune’s Dance” wherein Ti Moune leads the uppercrust of Daniel’s society in a limb-flung celebration of her rural, spiritual roots.
The inspirational power of ONCE IN THIS ISLAND is joyous. Indeed, this production, timed as it is, brings contemporary events like natural disasters and issues like inequality, wealth, and race to mind. In the end, though, what prevails in this entrancing musical is the healing power of storytelling. Embracing Ti Moune’s tale, in the rapturous finale, “Why We Tell the Story”, the choir of islanders sing out “For out of what we live, and we believe, our lives become the stories that we weave.”
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