Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 3, 2017
Once On This Island Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Michael Arden. Music supervisor Chris Fenwick. Choreography by Camille A. Brown. Scenic design by Dane Laffrey. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Orchestrations by AnnMarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin. Original vocal arrangements by Stephen Flaherty. Hair, wig, and make-up design by Cookie Jordan. Found instrument design by John Bertles and Bash the Trash. Associate director David Perlow. Associated choreographer Rickey Tripp. Music director Alvin Hough, Jr.. Music coordinator John Miller. Cast: Phillip Boykin, Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Emerson Davis, Alysha Deslorieux, Tyler Hardwick, Cassondra James, David Jennings, Hailey Kilgore, Grasan Kingsberry, Loren Lott, Kenita R. Miller, Alex Newell, Isaac Powell, T. Oliver Reid, Lea Salonga, Aurelia Williams, Mia Williamson.
Once On This Island, for which Ms. Ahrens adapted her book from Rosa Guy's novel "My Love, My Love," has the feel of a folk tale, one that has been passed down orally through generations and changed over time by drawing on many difference sources. Set in the French Antilles, it tells the story of Ti Moune ("Little Orphan"), played as a child by a charming Emerson Davis and later by Hailey Kilgore. Ti Moune is a foundling girl rescued from a flood and raised by a peasant couple, Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller). The couple knows full well their place in the island's hierarchy. The dark-skinned peasants stay on their side of the island, and the upper class light-skinned descendants of French planters live on theirs, behind iron gates that forever separate the two. In case we're not clear on this, there's even a song ("The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes") and a shadow play to explain the history of this apartheid.
But it is Ti Moune's story that compels the show. Like that other "tale as old as time" in Beauty and the Beast, Ti Moune's saga has roots in a well-known classic tale, that of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." It is a story of love and sacrifice, and, darkly, one where longing and determination are simply not enough to breach the barrier that separates the heroine from her erstwhile mate. In the case of Once On This Island, that would be Daniel (Isaac Powell), one of the "beauxhommes," whom Ti Moune pulls from a car wreck, nurses back to health, and believes the island's gods have arranged all of this so that she will be with him as his wife.
As we settle in our seats (a few of which are located directly on Dane Leffrey's sand-covered set, which is replete with any manner of repurposed objects), we watch as the native islanders work on clearing up the storm-damaged beach that will become the playing area. It's a wonderful opening, as the cast members enter and greet one another, dressed in assorted T-shirts, polos, khakis, skirts, and head wraps, all designed by Clint Ramos. Then suddenly, just like that, we're into the story. As Mama relates, "There is an island where rivers run deep."
Given the precariousness of life (everything seems make-shift here, including some of the found-object percussion instruments that the characters pick up and use to accompany the band), it is not surprising that the gods play an important role in the lives of the inhabitants. And indeed, they are present throughout the production. There is Asaka (Alex Newell), Mother of the Earth; Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), God of Water; Erzulie (Lea Salonga), Goddess of Love; and Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge, a powerhouse performer resplendent in her Amazon warrior outfit). The four take pleasure in intervening in the lives of the human characters. Indeed, there is much at stake, with a bet between Erzulie and Papa Ge as to whether Love or Death will prove to be the strongest.
Stephen Flaherty's score offers a mix of styles. The songs for Ti Moune call on Hailey Kilgore to embrace us with a full-voiced, emotional style that suits her character's certitude as she sets out to cross through the gates to win Daniel's love after he has been restored to his family. There is also an elegant European waltz for the rich folks to dance to. But the breakout songs are those that suggest that we are on a Caribbean island (or its Broadway equivalent, at least): the contagious opening number, "We Dance;" an audience-favorite "Mama Will Provide," gloriously sung by Alex Newell as Ti Moune braves the road to the big city; and the wonderful "Ti Moune's Dance," a showstopper of a number choreographed by Camille A. Brown that seems like an act of Voodoo rebellion yet manages to win over the crowd at the formal ball.
Truly, any quibbles with this impressive and thoroughly engaging production are minimal. About the only thing I can come up with is that I wasn't loving the costume worn by Lea Salonga; with her flowing white robes and silver headpiece, she looks rather like the angel on top of the Christmas tree. But, really, everything else is spot-on all the way, with wonderful ensemble work by the entire cast, accompanied by both the excellent band (Alvin Hough, Jr. directs) and the array of found instruments.
Circle in the Square, with its flexible performance space and in-the-round seating, is the ideal locale to house this 90-minute production, with the added bonus of being adjacent to the Gershwin Theatre and that other musical inspired by a children's story. I'm speaking, of course, of Wicked, whose audience would likely embrace Once On This Island as well. Like "The Little Mermaid," this particular story will not have a happy ending. But it is a story that will be picked up and retold again and again: "There is an island where rivers run deep."