Director Arden, a 2005 Juilliard graduate, has impressed with his reinvention of the 2015 Forest of Arden/ Deaf West Theatre revival of Spring Awakening for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. Among his clever additions to Once on This Island are the use of a chorus of eight to play the Storytellers who relate the tale through Ahrens’ book and lyrics, a new sonic palette for Flaherty’s calypso-tinged score with musical instruments made from found objects, and a set which puts us on the shores of the very island where the story takes place with the audience sitting on all four sides of this newly created beach. His young lovers Ti Moune and Daniel seem a good deal younger than before, making the story that much more romantic and ultimately more tragic.
When the audience enters the theater, they are met with an island setting by Dane Laffrey that resembles a beach after a hurricane: debris all over the sand, a chicken in a cage, a goat on a tether, fire in a drum, food cooking on a grill, clothing on pieces of an iron gate, and rows of candles as offerings. At one end of the playing space is a pool (leading out to the ocean); at the other, the back of a truck on which the musicians sit. Reeds and stalks litter the set while the walls of the theater are covered with clothing on hangers and clothes lines. This is not environmental theater but it is the closest thing to it in a conventional Broadway theatre.
Based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love, or, The Peasant Girl, Once on This Island is a cross between The Little Mermaid and Romeo and Juliet. The themes of racial inequality and a hurricane ravaged island are more pertinent now than they were back in 1990. Set on the French Antilles island of Haiti, this musical is framed as a story told to a little girl frightened by a storm. The Storytellers relate how the islanders were ruled by four gods: Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Alex Newell); Agwe, God of Water (Quentin Earl Darrington); Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Lea Salonga); and Papa Ge, Demon of Death (Merle Danridge). On this island referred to as the “jewel of the Antilles,” the dark-skinned peasants farm and fish on one side of the island and the grands hommes, the lighter-skinned descendants of the French planters, live on the other side in their grand hotels: two different worlds, never meant to meet.
However, Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore in her excellent Broadway debut), an orphan child saved after a hurricane by the gods, and brought up by her adoptive parents Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) dreams about the fast-driving strangers from the other side of the island who pass her on the road. Erzulie and Papa Ge have a bet as to which is stronger: love or death. As an experiment, Papa Ge arranges for the car of Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell in his impressive Broadway debut) to crash so that Ti Moune can nurse him back to health and fall in love with him. When Papa Ge comes for Daniel, Ti Moune offers her life instead, but Papa Ge leaves with the threat that her life now belongs to him.
When Daniel’s family comes and takes him back, Ti Moune walks across the island to be reunited with him with the help of Asaka. Although he does not remember her, he believes that she has healing powers and allows her to nurse him back to health. When they fall in love, he does not tell her that marriage between a grand homme and a peasant is not an option and that he is promised to someone else. At a great ball, Ti Moune is tricked into revealing her lowly origins and her downfall begins. Daniel is eventually shown up for the social snob that he has always been.
Although the sound design by Peter Hylenski leaves something to be desired depending on where you sit, the voices of the cast are glorious, from Salonga and Newell’s lustrous sopranos to Darrington and Boykin’s resonant baritones. Brilliantly cast each actor brings another quality to this Carribean story. Kilgore is a wide-eyed, impassioned and unsophisticated Ti Moune, while Powell is a charming yet entitled Daniel. Boykin and Miller are compassionate and understanding as Ti Moune’s middle-aged adoptive parents. Salonga sparkles as the Goddess of Love, while Newell brings a hearty love of life to her role as Mother of the Earth. Darrington is a retiring but forceful God of Water, while Ms. Dandridge in an off-beat bit of casting is a sinister Papa Ge, Demon of Death.
Enhancing Arden’s inventive and brilliant staging, choreographer Camille A. Brown who has four exciting extended ballet sequences, moves the Storytellers around as though they are dancing across the stage and often they are. Giving the peasants and gods their own exotic color palette, costume designer Clint Ramos wisely puts the grands hommes in all white until the ball where each woman is dressed in her own defining color. The brilliant lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer transports us to this Caribbean island often beset by storms and other difficulties. Conducted by Alvin Hough, Jr., the newly orchestrated score by Annmarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin (the show’s original orchestrator) also includes the found instruments of John Bertles & Bash the Trash that helps gives Flaherty’s score its unique new sound.
In the hands of director Michael Arden, Once on This Island is a unique experience with its calypso tinted score and its primitive sounding lyrics. Ahrens’ book and lyrics give mythic proportions to the original Rosa Guy tale. Its 24 musical numbers make the show feels like it is sung-through although there is dialogue between the songs. Impeccably cast with eight more actors than the original production, Once on This Island is riveting musical theater in an environment that puts the Caribbean on Broadway and transports the viewer to the Jewel of the Antilles. This reinvented revival is one of the most exciting and transformative to come along in many years, a great improvement over its original production.
Once on This Island (through January 6, 2019)
Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway at 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-477-7400 or visit http://www.onceonthisisland.com
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission