New York City Theater
"Once on This Island"
Circle in the Square
You don’t need a magician to make magic. Case in point: the smashing revival of the 1990 “Once on This Island,” with its insinuating West Indian score, its heartfelt “Romeo and Juliet” tale of mismatched lovers, its rich atmosphere, its interdependence of animals (including a diapered goat), humans and gods, its all-encompassing love, brought together by brilliant director Michael Arden. It’s an evening that swirls with color and dazzle.
The first outing for Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), who went on to write ”Ragtime” and “My Favorite Year,” is more than a musical: it’s a party in which storytellers and folklorists gather to mythologize. Taking place on “an island in the French Antilles” (think Haiti), its tale is told against the background of natural and man-made disasters: hurricanes and earthquakes, prejudices and barriers, conflating what the gods do to us with what we do to each other.
Beginning with the exuberant “We Dance,” the villagers pay worship to the elements, to earth, to water, to the gods who bring life, to death which takes it.
After a near-fatal car crash, Ti Moune, a black peasant girl, finds and nurses the injured body of the driver, Daniel, a light-skinned planter’s son. Ti Moune makes a Faustian bargain with Papa Ge, the figure of death, to exchange her soul for Daniel’s, when the time comes. Meanwhile, when Daniel recovers, he and Ti Moune fall in love. Despite her parents’ warnings, she believes Daniel will marry her. “On the island of two different worlds, never meant to meet,” can love conquer death or is death stronger?
The story is uncomplicated. It’s all in the telling. With his exuberant cast, director Arden not only spotlights individuals but draws together a celebratory, gender-fluid community. Careful not to condescend, he and his storytellers probe beyond realism into more primitive, more exotic realms without losing hold of characters and plot.
As the adult Ti Moune, Hailey Kilghore gives a career-making performance, filled with joy. Even at adverse times, her Ti Moune greets the world with optimism. As Daniel, Isaac Powell wears his privilege without disdain.
As opposing gods, Lea Salonga is a warm and gentle Erzulie, the goddess of love, while Merle Danridge is a fierce Papa Ge, the demon of death. In a superlative cast, other standouts are Phillip Boykin, Quentin Earl Darrington and Kenita R. Miller with a special nod to the sensational Alex Newell who rocks the house with “Mama Will Provide.”
Essential to the production’s success are Dane Laffrey’s scenic design and Clint Ramos’ stunning costumes. Choreographer Camille A. Brown’s choreography brings it all home with dances that celebrate the kinds of humane, integrated experiences in short supply these days.
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 18, 2017