By Reuven Glezer
It would be incredibly difficult to imagine less of a theatrical accomplishment than the resplendent return of Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s Once on this Island, directed by wunderkind and visionary Michael Arden. Arden, whose Broadway debut of the Deaf West Theater’s Spring Awakening cemented him as a new, original, and downright brilliant voice in theatre, has turned the Circle in the Square into a fully-realized tropical fable. A French Antillean island caught after a storm has become a complete experience with sand, flowing water, music, and magic in order to tell the story of Ti Moune, whose journey would change the fates of the islanders forever. It is not a journey, one should be forewarned, that ends as perhaps expected.
Storytellers gather to cheer up a little girl scared by a hurricane, thus beginning the retelling of a story one can only imagine must mean the world for the storytellers and the island it takes place upon. On an island divided by high mountains, on one side live the black peasants who suffer in poverty and constant worry about their futures, while on the other, the mixed-race “grand hommes”, descendants of the French, live in wealthy cities and in relative comfort. Ruling over the island are four gods, of earth, love, death, and water. When Ti Moune, saved by the gods as a child, asks for them to finally bring her destiny about, they do so in ways only gods can.
The four gods themselves are finely acted and superbly realized, each receiving a stand-out number that showcases the sheer skill of this cast. Quentin Earl Darrington, with a voice that reminds one of mountain breaking from the sea, conjures upon storms in his solo piece “Rain” and even just as a supporting voice, it’s hard to not hear his distinctive thunder. Alex Newell, playing the earth goddess Asaka, is such an energetic, enrapturing performer that midway through her number “Mama Will Provide”, audience members began to stand up and cheer her on as she belted out the last notes. The initiators of Ti Moune’s journey, the demon of death Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge) and goddess of love Erzulie (Miss Saigon alum Lea Salonga), prove themselves to truly being equals not only in terms of their command over their respective domains, but also in voice and musical presence.
That’s not to say the mortals of the story are any less heartbreaking in the majesty of their voices. Phillip Boykin, as Tonton Julian, and Kenita R. Miller, as Mama Euralie, make Ti Moune’s adoptive parents less of a fairy tale trope and more of a genuine family that loves and fears for their wild-hearted daughter.
Speaking of that wild-hearted daughter, making her Broadway debut as Ti Moune is Hailey Kilgore, who absolutely steals the entire show from under the feet of any seasoned thespian. Her voice demands such attention in both its innocence in spirit and desire for a larger world; it becomes difficult to not want the story to end just so that she can be on stage for just a little while longer. The production choice for an open casting call could not have worked out better and it’s easy to imagine a long and bright future for Kilgore, no matter where it may lead.
The production, as befit a proper revival, has a few tricks up its sleeves besides a great cast and astounding set design, courtesy of Dane Laffrey. Original orchestrator Michael Starobin (Falsettos, Assassins, Next to Normal) and Annmarie Milazzo have shifted the sonic experience of the show into the direction of something refreshing and truly original. Certain instruments from the traditional Broadway pit have been stripped away and replaced with not only original vocal arrangements from Flaherty himself, but they come alongside found instrumentation from Josh Bertles and environmental arts group Bash the Trash. If you thought it wasn’t possible for trash to be tuned, you would be dead wrong.
Rounding out this fully-fleshed production team are choreographer Camille A. Brown, whose dances bring not only a ritualistic storytelling feel to this resplendent journey but are also incredibly joyful and life-affirming, and light designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, whose rich menageries of color bring the necessary hues and shades to every place and time.
It’s very easy to create rosy, exact-as-possible revivals that are just as appealing as can be expected, but it takes a notable degree of talent, and more importantly hard work, to take a musical apart and put it back together again in a wondrous new shape. Arden and his team took what may arguably be Ahrens’ and Flaherty’s best book and score and completely enhanced the work to make it one of the best musicals currently playing on Broadway. That is a claim this production can proudly make in the brightest marquee lights it can find.