Broadway Review: 'Once on this Island'

Joseph Verlezza

“Once On this Island” was certainly an enchanting and memorable visit twenty-seven years ago and that may in fact cloud the opinions expressed when recently returning to this island and commenting on what had changed. Some audience members may have experienced finding an unknown out of the way place that had a simple and charming ambiance, with friendly locals that quickly felt like family, as they shared their history and stories. Then you return to that place many years later finding glitzy hotels, hundreds of tourists, silly souvenir shops and inhabitants that spout the history and stories but never really lived them. That is what came to mind while viewing the current incarnation of this wonderful musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The captivating aura that cast a magical spell fueling the imagination of a little girl as she listens to the folklore of the island is replaced by a big Broadway spectacle that is plagued with excess and self-indulgence.

The play opens with the inhabitants of the island cleaning up after a major storm has devastated the area. Then the folkloric story begins to be told to a little girl (the natural and innocent Emerson Davis). A very long time ago a catastrophic storm destroyed the island and in the aftermath, as two older islanders, (portrayed by the remarkable Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller), were wandering through the debris, they discovered a little girl, Ti Moune, sitting high up in a tree. They became her adoptive parents. As Ti Moune grows, (an enthusiastic Hailey Kilgore) she falls in love with the boy Daniel (infused with energy by Isaac Powell) from a wealthy family on the French side of the island after she sees his car crash. She heals him after making a deal with Papa Ge, the god of death (a menacing and sultry Merle Dandrige) to spare him in exchange for her life. After a short time together, she is rejected by the wealthy family as Daniel has an arranged marriage. She cannot live without her love and Death takes her as she walks into the sea.

It is a beautiful story of young love that is laced with all the right elements for teaching, touching on topics of social rejection, racism, caste, ethics, survival, and rebirth. One drawback of this production is that at times the story is lost. Obscured by overwrought staging and a superfluous set that includes a sand-filled playing area, the sea (yes, water that extends offstage), the back half of a semi-truck, colorful laundry hanging everywhere, a live goat (complete with a diaper) and chickens. The tree that flourishes in the final scene representing a rebirth, the inner beauty of Ti Moune and the resounding spirit of the island is a telephone pole that is raised up, I imagine representing restored power.

Vocally the cast is a powerhouse but over-amplified and at times disconnected. A highlight of the evening is the song “Ti Moune” delivered with sensitivity and tenderness by Mr. Boykin and Ms. Miller who provide stable characters, honestly connected throughout the story. It is worth the wait to hear Mr. Powell sensitively sing “Some Girls” with a pure tonal quality expressing a sensible vulnerability. It would be remiss not to mention the crowd pleasers, Hailey Kilgore’s “Waiting for Life” and Alex Newell’s big belt “Mama Will Provide.” 

Even with all its distraction and pitfalls, for those who have never visited this island before, it will be a marvelous vacation. There would be no reason to revive a musical unless it is seen in a different perspective with new and inventive ideas and visions. This current production under the direction of Michael Arden delivers a big, lavish Broadway musical with show-stopping numbers, which are sure to please the current stream of theatergoers.

“Once On This Island” features Lea Salonga, Alex Newell, Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, and Hailey Kilgore. The cast also includes Phillip Boykin, Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Emerson Davis, Alysha Deslorieux, Tyler Hardwick, Cassondra James, David Jennings, Grasan Kingsberry, Loren Lott, Kenita R. Miller, Isaac Powell, T. Oliver Reid, Aurelia Williams, and.

The creative team for “Once On This Island” includes director Michel Arden, Lynn Ahrens (bookwriter and lyricist), Stephen Flaherty (music), Camille A. Brown (choreographer), Michael Starobin and AnnMarie Milazzo (orchestrators), Dane Laffrey (Scenic Design), Clint Ramos (Costume Design), Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Lighting Designers), Peter Hylenski (Sound Designer), John Bertles/Bash The Trash (Unusual Instruments), Cookie Jordan (Hair/Wig & Makeup Designer), Chris Fenwick (Music Supervisor), and Telsey + Co / Craig Burns, CSA (Casting). Alvin Hough, Jr. is the music director. Production photos by Joan Marcus.

For tickets for “Once On This Island” at The Circle in the Square Theatre (235 West 50th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue) and the performance schedule, visit Running time is 90 minutes without intermission.

Photo: (L – R): Mia Mei Williamson, Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore, and the cast of “Once On This Island.” Credit: Joan Marcus.