The first Broadway revival of “Once on This Island,” a stunning storybook production of a Caribbean-flavored folktale, begins in the aftermath of a natural disaster, as a story of love and loss told to soothe a frightened girl. With a terrifically appealing cast, including Lea Salonga as the goddess of love and several impressive Broadway debuts, as well as a rhythmic score, infectious choreography, vibrantly colorful design, and clever stagecraft, the musical itself could well serve to soothe audience members reeling from the year’s many disasters. There are even live roosters and a goat cute enough to be the star attraction in a petting zoo.
Set on a little island in the French Antilles (whose history resembles Haiti), the musical focuses on Ti Moune, a black peasant girl. First, we see her as a child (portrayed by Emerson Davis or Mia Williamson at alternate performances) orphaned in a storm, and then adopted by Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin, magnificent as always, but this time kindly, in sharp contrast to his Tony-nominated performance as the evil Crown in Porgy and Bess.) Ti Moune grows up to be graceful and spirited, as performed by Hailey Kilgore, the graceful and spirited 18-year-old making an exciting Broadway debut. She meets Daniel Beauxhomme (lanky, sexy Isaac Powell, also making an auspicious debut) when he recklessly crashes his car. Ti Moune discovers him, nurses him back to health, and falls in love with him. But, while Daniel is happy to have Ti Moune as his mistress, he won’t marry her. He lives on the other side of the island – a place of wealth and power and lighter skins – and his rich and connected family has promised him from childhood to the equally upper class Andrea (Alysha Deslorieux.)
If this story makes “Once on This Island’ sound like a serious musical that explores issues of income inequality or, a la South Pacific, racial prejudice, these elements are played down in favor of those that turn the show into a grim (but lively!) fairy tale, complete with a supernatural ending that’s sad and touching and meant to be uplifting. The musical is a loose stage adaption of “My Love, My Love: Or, The Peasant Girl,” a 1985 novel by the Trinidad-born Rosa Guy, which is itself something of an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Center stage are a quartet of gods — colorfully and cleverly costumed by Clint Ramos — who rule over the island and the fate of its inhabitants. Salonga is Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, dressed all in white with her still-heavenly voice, which we first heard in the original Broadway production of Miss Saigon;
Quentin Earl Darrington is Agwe, the God of Water, rendered particularly striking by Cookie Jordan’s blue body paint; and then there are two gender-flipping casting choices: the actress Merle Dandridge as terrifying Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, and Alex Newell, who portrayed Unique Adams on TV series “Glee,” making an astonishing Broadway debut as Asaka, Mother of the Earth, who gets the show-stopping number, “Mama Will Provide,” and makes the most of it.
One might question some aspects of this 1990 musical, which was the first Broadway show by the team of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynne Ahrens (book and lyrics)
who went on to create such musical adaptations as Ragtime and Rocky and, (currently playing six blocks away) Anastasia. A former colleague recently complained to me about the score, mentioning the now-common phrase “cultural appropriation,” but objecting not to the fact that the composers are white but to what she sees as their pale imitation of Caribbean music, at a time when reggae, reggaeton, bachata, calypso, salsa, soca, meringue, Latin trap etc. music created by Caribbean artists have become much more familiar to music lovers in North America. I can’t agree with her – I’m not knowledgeable enough about Caribbean music to be a purist. I found the music consistently pleasing. But I have to admit this was largely for its lively percussive qualities; for all the exquisite voices, I found only a handful of songs melodically memorable.
The second issue is the discomfort parents might feel in the explicit message of female sacrifice. We are supposed to see Ti Moune’s tragic transformation as magical, beautiful, while meanwhile the cad Daniel gets off unscathed. I didn’t get a sense that the musical or any of its characters even see him as a cad.
But any such quibbles are swept away like the detritus in a hurricane thanks to the delights large and small in the production – one of which is the swirl of detritus in a fan-induced hurricane. Director Michael Arden created a fresh new Spring Awakening on Broadway in 2015, just six years after the original had closed, by mixing deaf and hearing actors. Here he mixes races and genders deliberately willy-nilly, but it’s in the inventive details of “Once in This Island” that he makes it most distinct. Before the show even begins, theatergoers enter the auditorium of the Circle in the Square walking past walls hanging with laundry and bursting with tropical vegetation, while below, Alex Newell, the god Asaka, wearing a skirt that looks like a picnic tablecloth, stands in the sand as he busily barbecues; the rich scent from the persuasively real meal wafts up at least to Row E. Dane Laffey’s set is a dense and endless scavenger hunt of unusual objects. In the best tradition of storybook theater, makeshift objects are enlisted to create a scene, with the help of fog and the dramatic lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
Then there is Camille A. Brown’s thrilling choreography, climaxing in “Ti Moune’s Dance,” her dance in the sand, so alluring that the “grand hommes” join her (and the audience does vicariously too.)
The last of the 20 songs in “Once on This Island,” is entitled “Why We Tell This Story,” and includes the lyrics:
Life is why we tell the story
Pain is why we tell the story
Love is why we tell the story
Grief is why we tell the story
Hope is why we tell the story
All of which may be true. But fun is why we listen.
Once on This Island
Circle in the Square
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; Music by Stephen Flaherty; Directed by Michael Arden
Scenic Design by Dane Laffrey; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski; Hair and Wig Design by Cookie Jordan; Make-Up Design by Cookie Jordan
Cast Phillip Boykin, Alysha Deslorieux, Quentin Earl Darrington, Kenita R. Miller, Isaac Powell, Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Cassondra James, David Jennings, Grasan Kingsberry, Tyler Hardwick, Loren Lott, Alex Newell, T. Oliver Reid, Lea Salonga and Aurelia Williams
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission