A joyful noise thunders through Circle in the Square theater, as Broadway welcomes a smashing revival of Once On This Island. Michael Arden’s exuberant staging of this 1990 musical fairy tale set on a Caribbean island conjures a spell that is devastatingly timely yet affectingly timeless in its evocation of how love goes when the indifferent, capricious whims of gods and nature intervene in the deepest yearnings of the human heart.
Enter the subterranean theater and we know instantly we’re not in New York anymore. The designers Dane Laffrey (set) and Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting) have turned one of Broadway’s most intimate yet challenging spaces, in which the audience surrounds the playing area as in an arena, into a fractured paradisiac vision, unlike any cruise-ship commercial.
Debris-strewn and junk-heaped like some demented tropical version of Cats, it purposely and powerfully evokes the wrenching scenes of devastation wrought by hurricane Maria and the marginal seaside villages laid waste by earthquakes and storms. An overturned dinghy, rusted oil barrels, fishing nets and plastic crates pock the sand as denizens and demi-gods emerge from the morning fog in the sprawling opening number, “We Dance.”
Adapted from My Love, My Love: Or, The Peasant Girl – a novel by Rosa Guy, who was born in Trinidad and lived in New York until her death in 2012 – Once On This Island tells the story of Ti Moune, a dark-skinned orphan taken in and raised in poverty by a loving couple. Also watching over her are the mischievous spirits of water (Agwe), earth (Asaka) and the highly competitive love (Erzulie) and death (Papa Ge).
Ti Moune (enchantingly played as a child by Emerson Davis) grows into uncertain young womanhood (newcomer Hailey Kilgore, an ingenue with star power emanating as much from her fingertips as from her lovely voice), wondering what she’s been put on the planet to achieve. Erzulie (Lea Salonga, the original Miss Saigon, most recently seen in Allegiance) and Papa Ge (the ferocious Merle Dandridge) make a bet to determine which is stronger, love or death, and Ti Moune becomes their test subject.
She’s like the righteous prophet Job, who has no idea that his increasing travails are the result of a similar wager between God and Satan. Ti Moune’s fate is set when Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington, imposing and blueish) unleashes a fierce storm across the island (not to mention the audience, which is quite satisfyingly windswept during the sequence). When Daniel (Isaac Powell), a rich, light-skinned up-islander crashes his speeding jeep and is knocked unconscious, Ti Moune nurses him back to health, falls in love and moves into his bedroom in a gated mansion that might as well be on a different continent.
She thinks she has found her purpose, until Daniel informs her (rather late in the game, one might think) that he is engaged to marry someone of his own class. Cast out and degraded, Ti Moune never renounces her love, and Once On This Island ends not in the Disney fashion of happily ever after, but on a deeper note of affirmation.
That’s a lot of plot to plow through in 90 uninterrupted minutes. Much of the show’s charm derives from its seamless interweaving of narrative, song, and dance. Arden, who has worked magic before on revelatory revivals of Spring Awakening and Big River that paired hearing and deaf actors, is abetted by choreographer Camille A. Brown; together they give the show a seamless wave of action as our eyes are filled with the earthy-dreamy characters in a Mardi Gras of costumes from Clint Ramos.
And then there’s the score by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty. It’s an early work by the team that would go on to write shows full of gems even when they weren’t successful, including Ragtime, Seussical, and the current Anastasia. This is still the best of them: You can hear the influence of Disney favorite Alan Menken in Flaherty’s accomplished, pastiche tunes, and an edgy-but-not-too-edgy quality in Ahrens’ smart lyrics. A confident, swinging cast is blessed with showcase numbers, especially for Glee favorite Alex Newell, who brings down the house with Asaka’s gospel roof raiser, “Mama Will Provide.” Salonga’s torchy account of “The Human Heart” and Dandridge’s sexy strutting and belting in the quartet “And The Gods Heard Her Prayer” are also highlights.
And then there’s Kilgore, playing a role that introduced the luminous actress La Chanze in Graciela Daniele’s original production for Playwrights Horizons and then Broadway. Kilgore, like this revival itself, is no imitation but a triumph in her own right, striking exactly the right balance between innocence and spirituality, youth and experience. She’s just wonderful.