The power of love to overcome pain, even death. The power of money to overcome love. The power of a storm to destroy and devastate. The power of words to heal, to inspire, to convince. Indeed, these lessons are all inside Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ deceptively simple – yet, dare I say, powerful – 90-minute musical fable Once on This Island.
While none of these truths are hidden, they may feel obscured by the captivating (if occasionally excessive) inventiveness of Michael Arden’s physical production of this 1990 tuner, now at Circle in the Square. Working with the great scenic designer Dane Laffrey, Arden transforms this sometimes-difficult playing space into what feels like a hurricane-ravaged Caribbean island (complete with a live goat roaming the premises). At times, the show’s physical attributes, including Clint Ramos’ wonderfully conceived costumes and Camille A. Brown’s stunning and primarily joyful choreography, come close to overwhelming the delicate story, but ultimately, they enhance and burnish it.
The unnamed island in the French Antilles is where the tale of the headstrong teenager Ti Moune (the beautiful, strong-voiced Hailey Kilgore in an exciting Broadway debut) is told to another, younger girl (Emerson Davis), who is a frightened survivor of a recent hurricane. Like us, the youngster is enraptured by what she hears – a story of an adopted orphan girl who fails in love instantly with Daniel (the sensational newcomer Isaac Power), a rich boy from the other side of the island, and whose decision to save his life makes her a pawn in a game between the goddess of love, Erzalie (Lea Salonga), and the god of death, Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge).
Originally cast among completely traditional lines – both in terms of race and gender – the show now features a reshuffled deck that, in some cases, works better as a social statement than it does in theatrical terms. The Philippine-born Salonga is as lovely as ever, offering a wonderful rendition of the ballad “The Human Heart,” but her relatively small part and slightly undersized presence may disappoint her super-fans. Dandrige brings fierceness and conviction to her role, but she’s not quite frightening enough as Papa Ge.
While former “Glee” star Alex Newell was undeniably a crowd favorite as the maternal goddess Asaka, I found the performance to be a bit campy and Newell’s rendition of Asaka’s big number “Mama Will Provide” to be overly histrionic. Conversely, I have no quibbles about Quentin Earl Darrington, who is thoroughly convincing as the fourth Island god, Agwe, and I can’t imagine better choices for the roles of Ti Moune’s adoptive parents than the extraordinary Kenita R. Miller and Philip Boykin.
At first, I was taken aback that Powell is (or appears) Caucasian – as the character’s skin is described as “the color of coffee and cream” – but no matter: His acting is persuasive, his tenor voice is sublime (I think half of New York may now choose “Some Girls” as their audition song”), and his athleticism is impressive. You might give up your life for him too.
Still, the show really rises (and can fall) on the casting of central role of Ti Moune, and Kilgore – an 18-year-old from Happy Valley, Oregon, who was discovered during a nationwide talent search – delivers all the goods. Her rendition of the plaintive, defiant “Waiting For Life” is worthy of a prolonged ovation. (Oddly, it’s the character's only solo). More importantly, she captures the elusive mix of innocence and maturity that makes Ti Moune capture our hearts.
In fact, I suspect once will not be enough for many viewers of Once on This Island. Nor should it be if you want to experience every facet of the show’s innate richness and Arden’s often-remarkable production.