Here’s official proof that I’ve gotten older: I was allergic to the original Cats, but truly enjoyed the current revival, and the same goes for Miss Saigon, which grew in stature as I stooped in posture. What’s more, I found the 1990 Broadway debut of Once on This Island too slight and precious for my taste, but I have to admit I was enraptured by the revival I just saw. As directed by Michael Arden and featuring a vibrant ensemble, it sings, it floats, and it soars.
The French Antilles-set show—with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, based on a Rosa Guy novel—starts with the costumed cast (and even a goat and a chicken) doing some pre-show action, milling about the Circle In the Square stage and interacting in a way that made me extra awestruck with what actors have to do for their glory. The stage happens to be covered with sand and debris, and the theater walls are lined with hanging laundry, in a fascinatingly atmospheric set designed by Dane Laffrey. The story has a frightened little girl being told the story of Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), an orphan peasant washed up in a storm flood and ending up in one of those Romeo and Juliet-type romances with Daniel, a rich kid from the “better” part of the island (Isaac Powell).
The island’s gods arrange for her to meet the injured Daniel and help heal him, proving the power of love, though Ti Moune is later rejected and has to either kill Daniel or keep her promise to give up her own life. (This is a fable, relax. It’s as much Hans Christian Anderson as it is Shakespeare.) As the plot unfolds, the show predominantly consists of music, and it’s both lilting and haunting, with some softer tones intercepting when too much belting threatens to take over. Kilgore gets a zesty “I want…” song (“Waiting For Life”), Alex Newell (as the god Asaka) scores with a rousingly fun calypso number called “Mama Will Provide,” and as Erzulie, Lea Salonga hits all her vocal marks on the sweet “The Human Heart.” Musical theater regulars Kenita R. Miller and Phillip Boykin are also standouts in key roles. The staging propulsively uses the whole space—choreography is by Camille A. Brown—and the whole production feels committed almost to the point of mania.
I was touched by what Arden says in the Playbill: “As we began our work on Once On This Island, it became impossible to ignore the ever-growing number of disasters occurring around the world… It would seem no place or person is immune to the power and wrath of the gods. While doing research in Port Au Prince, the creative team and I learned first-hand that Haiti is a country deeply rooted in both faith and ritual. It became clear to us that we rebuild not only with hammer, nail and whatever materials are available, but through the healing power of storytelling.”
Trump has ruthlessly ended protections for Haitians, but their spirit finds refuge in this show.