There’s a live chicken and a goat in stylish diapers. A stew being cooked briefly burns my eyes with vapor of onions (smells good.) The theater is festooned with salvaged garments and shoes on clotheslines. Boulders and tree branches extend out into the audience. Music emerges from atop a metal shipping container. The edge of the sea is real water as is rain. On stage fire appears in metal trashcans, atop torches, on candle chandeliers adroitly collaborating with Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s haunting Lighting Design. The performance space is a sand pit filled with beach debris – an overturned rowboat, plastic bags and bottles, dried palm fronds, a steering wheel, crumpled paper, buckets, crates, a fishing rod…(Dane Lafferty-Set Design)
Phillip Boykin; Kenita R. Miller
A young, pig-tailed girl (Emerson Davis) in a school pinafore sits coloring. The area is gradually occupied by a garrulous, multi-ethnic company in ragtag costumes, some with Haitian print patterns and turbans (we’re in Port au Prince) who speak with one another and to the audience with ease and vivacity. A few clear the sand. One is doing laundry. There are drums, birdsong…
Lea Salonga, Emerson Davis, Alex Newell, Quentin Earl Darrington, Merle Dandridge
When I last saw Once On This Island in 1990 at the first iteration of Playwrights’ Horizons, the stage was tiny, its cast minimal, costumes picturesque, but careful, scenery mostly imagined. (The show later transferred to The Booth Theater.) It was enchanting. What would happen, I wondered, when a Broadway budget was available? Much charming theater has been swallowed up or emotionally diminished on larger scale.
Concern was needless. The show has both been physically expanded and reconstructed, most obviously adding eight storytellers who tell the Romeo and Juliet –like tale of cosseted, French “grand homme” Daniel (the –here- patrician Isaac Powell in an exceptional Broadway debut reflecting multiple talents) and poor orphan Ti Moune (radiant, uber-talented Hailey Kilgore whose dewy-eyed freshness, coltish grace, and pluck make the character luminous).
Isaac Powell and Quentin Earl Darrington
The two young performers, both with wonderful voices, display disarming innocence and poetic chemistry. Also sympathetically grounded are Ti Moune’s foster parents, Tonton Julian (the reliably genuine Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller, here maternal to her core) who rescue her from a tree after the first of several violent storms denude the island.
Brilliant staging by Michael Arden makes full use of the oval, sunken pit that gives the theater its name, often placing the gods among us. A tall metal gate to the landed gentry is evocative. Illuminating the island’s history of bad blood between classes with a shadow play catches imagination. The body of a car is quickly fabricated out of seaside garbage; Ti Moune morphs into a young woman before audience eyes. None of this is overblown or gratuitous.
Isaac Powell and Merle Dandridge
Arden and his team evidently traveled to Haiti for research purposes, even attending a Vudou ceremony. His respect for the importance of faith, ritual, and attention to authentic detail is omnipresent. Instead of reducing magic with veracity, it’s enhanced by awareness. The Director writes that, to him, the narrative shows “how the good we do can echo and reverberate long after our lives are over.” A universally humanist approach.
Every member of the cast is vividly focused. Social status emerges in body language and speech equal to apparel change. Clint Ramos’ Costumes are eye ticklingly wonderful defining economics, era, geography, and character from impecunious to opulent. That such variation of components should be aesthetically appealing together is a marvel. Hair, Wig, and Make-Up Design by Cookie Jordan is hand-in-glove inventive. Manifestation of the play’s four elemental gods is particularly inspired.
Agwe – God of Water (Quentin Earl Darrington), Asaka – Mother of Earth (Alex Newell), Papa Ge – Demon of Death (a terrific Amazonian Merle Dandridge) – casting the Reaper as a powerful woman! and Erzulie – Goddess of Love (Leah Salonga), offer three formidable presences. Love is interpreted with lovely vocals, but persona that might be punched up just a bit to weigh in. (Someone please explain to me why Ms. Salonga is dressed as a doctor in the opening scenario.)
Fluidity of movement works symbiotically with dynamic, Haitian influenced choreography by Camille A. Brown. (We sway in our seats.)
Arden’s ending is gloriously realized; spoiler alert – uplifting, but not happy. Once On This Island achieves deep richness of production buoying Lynn Ahrens’ book and lyrics and Stephen Flaherty’s score, both poignant, entrancing, irrepressibly fun, and effectively otherworldly.
A call out to Sound Designer Peter Hylenski whose expertise offers balance, clarity and definition in a challenging space as well as storms that will make you shudder.
And to Telsey & Company/Craig Burns CSA Casting who have peopled the stage with high talent quotient and variety.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: The Company; Hailey Kilgore
Once On This Island
Based on the novel ‘My Love, My Love’ by Rosa Guy
Book & Lyrics – Lynn Ahrens; Music – Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Michael Arden
Music Supervisor – Chris Fenwick
Circle In The Square
235 West 50th Street