The jubilant revival of Once on the Island takes shape even before the musical begins. The floor of the Circle-in-the-Square theatre has been transformed by Scenic Designer Dane Laffrey into a sandy, Caribbean island beach populated by local residents. In one corner a woman is frying up some native delicacy, the aroma wafting through the lower rows of the theatre. Live chickens are caged at another part of the performing area while a goat is led around by its owner. Litter, brought ashore by the tides, is strewn about as the inhabitants mingle and socialize.
The 90 minute, intermission-less production tells the fable of Ti Moune, a young girl who falls in love with Daniel, a handsome aristocrat from the other side of the island. The four island gods have devised a test for the blossoming woman to see which is a more powerful force – love or death. They cause the injury of the young man in a car accident as a way for Ti Moune to meet and nurse him back to health. Before he is completely healed he is whisked away by family members to the luxury of the family compound. Crestfallen, she makes her way to his parent’s estate to convince him of her love. Bewitched by her genuineness and devotion, he becomes captivated with her before the reality of their star-crossed lives moves him, and their ill-fated relationship, onto a divergent, disheartening path.
Stephen Flaherty’s book of the show is an imaginative tale of the celebration of life and the power of love no matter the pain and heartbreak one may experience. His use of cast members to form a Greek-like chorus of storytellers enables a fluid narrative flow. The addition of the four portrayed deities – of the Earth, Water, Love and Death – provide a hallucinatory quality to the story.
The score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Lafferty, their Broadway debut, is evocative of the sounds from the Caribbean and buoyantly sung by the performers. They are enthusiastically rendered by a small off-stage band and supplemented by handmade instruments fabricated from items lying about the island’s beaches.
The cast is more of an ensemble effort with a few notable performances distinguishing themselves within the acting troupe. Some of the standouts include Hailey Kilgore as the older Ti Moune. She possesses boundless energy and conveys the mixed emotions of young love. Her voice soars and her stage presence reminds me of a fresh-faced Melba Moore. Philip Boykin as Tonton Julian, Ti Moune’s father and Kenita R. Miller as her mother, make an endearing, caring couple only wanting the best for their questioning child. Playing the island god Asaka (Mother of the Earth), Alex Newell has a thunderous voice and a commanding stage presence.
Director Michael Arden has created an immersive theatrical environment that takes full advantage of the circular stage and its environs to vividly tell the story. There is constant movement within the production and sights to behold at every corner. The director forgoes unnecessary stagecraft, keeping sets and props to a minimum, which allows for more creative artistry and imagination. Working with Lighting Designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer and Sound Designer Peter Hylenski he has created a theatrical setting full of wonder and spectacle.
Choreographer Camille A. Brown has infused the show with vibrancy and exuberance. You feel the vitality and rapture of the performers. Some of the dances, especially Ti Moune’s high-spirited strutting at a fancy ball, come across as a joyous and infectious celebration.
Once on the Island, an enchanting and radiant production.