Continual waves of radiance, warming the blood and stirring the heart, flow forth from the sand-covered stage of the Circle in the Square Theatre, where an absolutely incandescent revival of the musical “Once on This Island” opened on Sunday. No matter where you sit in the theater — as is often the case here, the audience intimately surrounds a central playing space — the delights of this fable-like show, with a rapturous, rhythmically bewitching score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, will hold you entranced. If you’re looking for some much-needed emotional as well as literal warmth, as this grim year draws to a close, you could do no better than grab a ticket to this ebullient charmer.
First seen off-Broadway in 1990, the musical later transferred to Broadway and had a healthy run of more than a year. It was the first major success for the team of Flaherty and Ahrens (she wrote the economical book as well as the lyrics), who would go on to become regular — if not always commercially successful — creators of musicals of reliable quality and variety, most notably “Ragtime.” (The musical version of “Rocky” was perhaps their only truly misguided venture, and they are currently also represented on Broadway by the stage adaptation of the animated movie “Anastasia.”)
You can almost feel the joy of their early collaboration in “Once on This Island,” a quasi-fairy-tale (hence the title) set on an unnamed island in the French Antilles (think Haiti), about the affection that grows between two young adults: an impoverished orphan girl, Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), and an upper-class boy, Daniel (Isaac Powell), whom Ti Moune nurtures back to health after a car accident.
Their intertwined fates are overseen by a quartet of sometimes quarrelsome Gods: Erzulie, the goddess of love, played by the Broadway veteran Lea Salonga, still in heavenly voice; her sinister rival Papa Ge, the god of death (played, in a gender-switch, by a reptilian Merle Dandridge); the goddess of earth Asaka (Alex Newell, also a surprising and rewarding gender-switched choice) and the god of water, Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington). The principal conflict that arises among them is a tussle between Erzulie and Papa Ge over which is more potent, the force of love or death, and how these opposing powers will play out in the lives of Ti Moune and Daniel.
The complicated tale (it’s really a story within a story), which relies perhaps a little too much on narration (the chorus is designated as Storytellers), nevertheless comes across with piercing emotional clarity in the buoyant staging by the director Michael Arden. This is another triumph for Arden, after his beautiful reinvention of “Spring Awakening,” with both hearing and deaf actors, seen on Broadway two years ago. No matter where you look, the theater seems busy with active life, as the evocative set design of Dane Laffrey and the humorously jumbled (and humbly mismatched) costumes of Clint Ramos help draw a vibrant portrait of life on an island in which the darker-skinned black masses live in extreme poverty, while a small, lighter-skinned elite, partly descended from French colonists, live behind metaphorical and literal gates.
If Flaherty and Ahrens were to write “Once on This Island” today, they might be pilloried for “cultural appropriation,” that contemporary issue roiling social media and placing art squarely in the political sphere, where it is dissected not for quality and accomplishment but for whether it has been created by people with some inborn (by way of race or class) connection to the culture they are depicting. Even I might quibble, today, with the way the poor islanders in the supporting cast are depicted as beaming almost continually, romping in joyous song and dance. (The opening song, “We Dance, “ made me squirm a bit, since the contemporary, and realistic, sets and costumes, and some internal references, make clear that the poor populace is scavenging for clothing and suitable housing.) But this is a fanciful story, after all, and Flaherty has absorbed the rhythmic varieties of Caribbean music, and combined them with more traditional, often exquisite Broadway balladry, to create a richly diverse and ample musical landscape. (My only quibble with the production is actually the absence of the song “Come Down From the Tree,” which was cut from the original but later recorded by Audra McDonald and Lillias White; it’s a beautiful song, a desert-island show tune favorite of mine ever since I heard McDonald’s version, and surely could have been slipped in.)
The tree in question is one in which, early on, the young Ti Moune (Emerson Davis and Mia Williamson alternate in the role) is found sheltering high up during a storm that takes her parents. She is adopted by Tonton Julian (a gruffly affectionate Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller, in rich voice). Years later, as a teenager, she witnesses an accident in which the reckless Daniel crashes his car, and vows to save his life — to the point of promising Papa Ge that she would give her own life in exchange for his.
As the older Ti Moune, Kilgore glows with big-hearted life as she follows Daniel home to his stately “hotel.” Her fervent devotion to Daniel is barely dampened when he eventually tells her, gently, that marriage between them, despite their love, is impossible. It’s a richly sung, vibrantly danced performance, never more so than when Ti Moune, at a ball, tosses aside her shoes and erupts in a joyous folk dance. (The terrific choreography, by Camille A. Brown, who runs her own company, is both earthy and airborne.) As Daniel, who becomes engaged to the well-to-do Andrea (Alysha Deslorieux), the lanky, handsome Powell is also excellent, and he and Kilgore have an easy rapport that makes their characters’ troubled romance all the more affecting.
The supporting cast is virtually flawless. As the maternal Asaka, Newell is a bright standout, amusingly wrapped in what appears to be a plastic tablecloth for a skirt. He brings down the house, or more like brings it to its feet, with Asaka’s jubilant song of encouragement to Ti Moune, “Mama Will Provide.”
But he is far from the only one onstage to provide the kind of musical theater pleasures that give succor to the spirit. As with many actual fairy tales – some of which are fundamentally bleak – “Once on This Island” does not send us off with a simple happily-ever-after ending. It makes room for the harsh inevitability of death as well as the affirmation of life expressed in love. But it brings light and dark together with a simplicity and an artistry that spreads an inspiriting glow.
“Once on This Island” opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017.
Creative: Book by Lynn Ahrens; Music by Stephen Flaherty; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; Based on the novel ‘My Love My Love’ by Rosa Guy; Music orchestrated by AnnMarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin; Original Vocal Arrangements: Stephen Flaherty; Musical Director: Alvin Hough, Jr.; Additional Orchestrations: Haley Bennett and Javier Diaz
Producers: Ken Davenport, Hunter Arnold, Carl Daikeler, Roy Putrino, Broadway Strategic Return Fund, Sandi Moran, Caiola Productions, H. Richard Hopper, Diego Kolankowsky, Brian Cromwell Smith, Ron Kastner, Rob Kolson, Judith Manocherian/Kevin Lyle, Witzend Productions/Jeff Grove/Wishnie-Strasberg, Mark Ferris/Michelle Riley/Marie Stevenson and The Harbert Family/Keith Cromwell/Red Mountain Theatre Company; Associate Producer: Kayla Greenspan and Valerie Novakoff
Cast: Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Hailey Kilgore, Alex Newell, Lea Salonga, 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, Mia Williamson.