By Sarah Downs
The musical Once on This Island has held a special place in my heart since I saw the original production back in 1990. The infectious music and romantic tale brought a unique temperament to a traditional medium. The show has lost none of its luster over the years, and in the production the beauty of this musical has been given its full due and then some.
It tells the legend of Ti Moune (an incandescent Hailey Kilgore), an orphaned peasant girl raised by Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller), who falls in love with a handsome, wealthy boy Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell) from the city on the other side of the island. Separated by only a few miles of sand, they are nonetheless worlds apart. Ti Moune’s love for Daniel is so strong that when he returns to his mansion home, she cannot bear to stay behind. Guided by four spirits: Erzulie, a warm and ethereal Goddess of Love, (Lea Salonga), Asaka, the irrepressible Mother of Earth (Alex Newell,) Agwé, the God of water, dignified and thoughtful (Quentin Earl Darrington) and Papa Ge, the mesmerizing spirit of death (Merle Dandridge), Ti Moune embarks on a journey to uncertain future. She has made a promise she will be asked to keep, but can love conquer all, even death?
The ensemble, aptly referred to as ‘storytellers’ in the program, contribute in myriad ways to the performance, handing off the narrative to each other in a verbal dance that never allows the story line to drop. In a complete performance, they also create a living context. They are the birds; they are the night; they are the wind.
Using the theater in the round space to full advantage, director Michael Arden and set designer Dane Laffrey have embraced every inch of space, creating a unified world for performers and audience alike. With an upturned boat here, fallen tree there, laundry fluttering on clothes lines extending to the walls of the theater, we are in the storm-tossed French Antilles in an instant. With ironic timeliness, the detritus-strewn sands and fallen trees echo images we have seen all too frequently in recent months, in places like Houston and Puerto Rico.
The antitode to tragedy is to dance, to make music, to tell stories, to live in brilliant color, which these islanders do with abandon. Performing complex choreography by Camille A. Brown, as if the dance were the inspiration of the moment, with authentic gesture and of dazzling originality, the cast infuses every moment with spirit, emotion and music. Everywhere you look something catches your eye. Costumes by Clint Ramos vividly define the two worlds of ragtag poor and opulent wealthy, in rich bursts of color echoed throughout the set design. Lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and sound designer Peter Hylenski evoke sun and storm to great, even visceral, effect. As you ride the wave, you cannot help but ask — How did they pack so much legend, so much music, so much dance into 90 minutes?
In Once on This Island, Director Michael Arden has created an island of joy at the Circle in the Square Theater. I cannot praise this production enough. Every single element blends perfectly to bring this already beautiful musical to dazzling, joyous life.
Once on This Island, book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty; produced by Ken Davenport and Hunter Arnold; directed by Michael Arden; featuring Lea Salonga, Alex Newell, Merle Dandridge, and Quentin Earl Darrington and Hailey Kilgore, with Phillip Boykin, Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Emerson Davis, Alysha Deslorieux, Tyler Hardwick, Cassondra James, David Jennings, Grasan Kingsberry, Loren Lott, Kenita R. Miller, Isaac Powell, T. Oliver Reid, Aurelia Williams and Mia Mei Williamson. Camille A. Brown (choreography), Michael Starobin and AnnMarie Milazzo (orchestration), Dane Laffrey (Scenic Design), Clint Ramos (Costume Design), Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Lighting Design), Peter Hylenski (Sound Design), John Bertles/Bash The Trash (Unusual Instruments), Cookie Jordan (Hair/Wig/Makeup), Chris Fenwick (Music Supervisor), Alvin Hough, Jr. (Music Director).
At the Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th St., Tickets available at www.onceonthisisland.com. Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission.