by Michael Bracken
Twenty-six years after it was nominated for a Tony Award, Once on This Island is back on Broadway, performed in the round at Circle in the Square. With music by Stephen Flaherty and book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, it still seems young and fresh in its simplicity.
Island deals with the class distinctions between well-heeled mulattoes and their poorer, darker cousins on an unnamed Caribbean island with a French pedigree. It’s long on charm but short on actual commentary about the island’s nuanced color-driven hierarchy. It doesn’t judge, at least not overtly. It merely portrays island life in the context of a fable.
The story is narrated by the penniless villagers and the capricious gods to whom they pray. One after another, the storytellers give background and fill in details, as if passing a virtual microphone from one to the next. This unites them, making their strong ensemble even stronger.
It all begins when Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) find young Ti Moune (alternating Emerson Davis and Mia Williamson), who just lost her mother in a violent storm. They raise her as their own daughter, and she quickly becomes a young woman, played by the lovely, graceful Hailey Kilgore.
Grown-up Ti Moune has barely appeared onstage when she sees a stranger in white, the dashing, light-skinned Daniel Beauxhomme (an effortlessly caddish Isaac Powell) drive by in a car. She’s smitten, as much by his situation as his person, and sings “Waiting for Life,” a prayer to the gods that one day her stranger will arrive in a car and take her away. Kilgore’s voice is clear and sweet and powerful, her manner fiercely optimistic.
Ti Moune gets her wish, sort of. Daniel drives by again, but this time his car crashes. She finds him and nurses him day and night. When he’s taken back to the mulatto side of the island, she follows and confronts head-on the gaping chasm between her social station and his.
Flaherty’s score is consistently pleasing. While much of the music is Caribbean themed, much is not, which works surprisingly well, making the West Indian rhythms all the more distinctive. The standout number would have to be the gospel-inspired “Mama Will Provide,” belted out with thrilling abandon by Asaka (Alex Newell), the Mother of the Earth.
Camille A. Brown’s choreography is somewhat pedestrian, but it comes alive in “Ti Moune’s Dance,” where Kilgore and Brown pull out all the stops for an exciting African number.
In a program note, director Michael Arden speaks of his creative team’s research trip to Haiti, clearly a major influence for this production. Before the show begins, the sand-covered stage overflows with humanity, a goat, and some chickens in cages. Clothes hang out to dry on the walls. Believable? Maybe, but even if it’s an accurate portrayal of real life, this is a fairy tale, not a Clifford Odets drama. Dane Laffrey’s set bespeaks kitchen sink realism with a West Indian accent, while gods strut in the sand.
Clint Ramos’s costumes are in the same vein. When all the villagers are onstage, it’s like an explosion at a thrift shop. Is this how people dress on an impoverished Caribbean island? Sure, but is that the point of this simple parable of a musical?
Even the gods would do well to change couturiers. Asaka has a flowing floral print skirt set off by a football jersey. Erzulie (Lea Salonga), Goddess of Love, is dressed in a nondescript white gown, wearing a bizarrely busy crown made of I don’t know – and I don’t want to know – what. The Demon of Death, Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge), accessorizes with scales down her back. Only Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), the God of Water, would survive a raid by the fashion police, barely.
Yet for all its flaws, Once on This Island still delights with its lilting score and its lucid telling of a guileless folktale.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Open-ended run at The Circle in the Square Theatre (235 West 50th Street). www.OnceOnThisIsland.com 90 minutes with no intermission.