“Lynn and Stephen… thank you for this music. Truly. Thank you for all of your music.”
by Matt Smith
Peasants and grand-hommes came together in harmony last Wednesday night, when they swapped the grungy Jewel of the Antilles for the upscale Feinstein’s/54 Below, in order to pay tribute to the distinguished scribes of their 2017 Tony-winning Once on This Island—Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
Fusing popular classics with lesser-known gems, and even the occasional trunk song here and there, it was a true celebration in every sense of the word, exemplifying why the two deserve their rightful place among the giants of the American musical theatre canon.
Accompanied by a trio plucked straight from the show’s pit, including music director/pianist Alvin Hough, Jr., drummer Adam Wolfe, and bassist Alexandra Eckhardt, the velvet-voiced ensemble—shepherded by Ti Moune herself, the bubbly 2017 Tony nominee Hailey Kilgore—led us on a spirited, and aptly-worded, “journey to the past,” chronicling every facet of the duo’s illustrious three-decade career. In between, they dished out personal anecdotes of their own introductions to this formidable pair—from firsthand meetings to a transformative experience at one of their shows, to, appropriately, playing their music on an endless loop. It was fitting, too, that most of these discoveries took place years before they landed their current gig alongside the two—which, of course, only supports the theory that their music has a lasting, indelible influence.
Indeed, their music stands the test of time, touching generations young and old, urging us to open our hearts and minds to our ever-changing environment, and most importantly, invoke change. Their rich compositions and powerful words resonate now more than ever, as evidenced by Island player David Jennings’ breathtaking plea to “Make Them Hear You” in times of uncertainty, and Merle Dandridge’s candid assertion that there are times—especially in today’s world—when we admittedly feel “we can never go back to before.” The pair also possess the unique ability to amplify the human condition, and move listeners on a deeply personal level. To that end, emphasizing the influence their work has had on him as a father, Quentin Earl Darrington, OOTI’s resident Agwe, even brought his children up to join him in song.
Sure, it wasn’t all serious—after all, A&F are only human, and occasionally indulge in pure fun and silliness. OOTI’s youngest cast members displayed the pair’s knack for whimsy, with selections first from Seussical, then a lesser-known adaptation of the classic Sleeping Beauty.
But despite the profoundly poignant lyrics and soaring sonorous melodies, the evening’s true success lay in the thoughtful utilization of two important elements. The first, of course, was the highlighting of ensemble members. So often unfortunately cast aside in favor of lauding the leading players (though, let’s be real… Kilgore totally soars both here, with her pitch-perfect delivery of Anastasia’s “In My Dreams” and in her nightly performance as Ti Moune, and is completely deserving of all the glorious accolades), here, they’re on display, front and center, and really get a chance to show their stuff as soloists. Furthermore, numbers aside, beautiful as they are, the evening allowed us to see the cast as people, outside the barriers of their characters, and how they truly function as a family, how they care and champion each other’s talents and, above all, how they work to raise each other up—all of which align, not so coincidentally, with the themes present in Ahrens and Flaherty’s music.
The other was their delicate, thoughtful approach to handling material from their namesake production. Save for one song cut before the original 1990 premiere, delivered beautifully—trills and all—by the standout Cassondra James, OOTI work is primarily (and obviously) absent from the set list, allowing the group to break out of their shell, show diversity in style, and celebrate this fabulous duo for ALL they bring to the table—and not solely be limited to the lens of their show.
However, they cleverly nod to their tale by infusing that hauntingly familiar chorus (“Life is why, pain is why, love is why, hope is why…”) within the evening’s final number, sending us off into the night with a reminder not only of the weight of Lynn and Stephen’s work, but also of the power of storytelling in general.
Stories are the cornerstone of our foundation. They help us to grow… to build relationships… to develop an understanding of the world and of ourselves. They guide us to love… to hope…. to dream… and to believe. In times of strife, they help us to heal. In times of joy, they help us to capture the memories. And it’s important that we take stock, and remember to keep telling these stories as a means to inspire future generations… future beings… future storytellers.
It’s also vital that we take in different types of stories, and why exposure evenings that honor pros like these are so crucial to our being—especially now.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have them delivered by a harmonious, melismatic chorus like this one, but it has to be come back to the story.
And if there’s one thing this magical, musical, melismatic evening has solidified, it’s that Ahrens and Flaherty have got it all. They’re a well-oiled machine, and oh, what a story they weave.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto
Once on this Island Sings Ahrens and Flaherty was presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 W. 54th Street) on July 18th. The Tony Award-winning Best Musical Revival itself currently plays the Circle in the Square Theatre (235 W. 50th Street). For more information, please visit www.54below.com or www.onceonthisisland.com.