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Theatre in Review: Once on This Island (Circle in the Square Theatre)

Hailey Kilgore. Photo: Joan Marcus.

It's strange how changing times can affect one's view of a play; of course, the presence of a visionary director might have a bit to do with it, too. Once on This Island has always seemed to me to be a sophisticated piece of children's theatre. A tale of thwarted love overlaid with island folk mysticism and a strangely cheerful attitude, considering the fate of its heart-struck heroine, it can come across as being out of touch with its own heart of darkness. Yes, the score -- lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty -- weds impeccably crafted words to consistently infectious calypso-flavored melodies, but the overall effect has been, in my experience, a little too quaintly folkloric and rather too determined to entertain at all costs.

In Michael Arden's new Broadway revival, such concerns are swept away on a tide of fresh thinking. Arden has listened, intently, to the words of Ahrens' book and lyrics, and has a found a solid rationale for reinventing Once on This Island for 2017 while retaining its magic realist charms. Entering the Circle in the Square, one might expect to find an island paradise -- all sun, surf, and palm trees. In Dane Laffrey's all-embracing set design, however, it is more of a post-hurricane purgatory. The sand-covered deck is loaded with debris, surrounded by corrugated walls on which laundry lines have been hung. A truck, backed up to the deck, sits at a precarious angle. A chicken sits in a cage. A vomitorium has been transformed into a little pond. Cast members appear, foraging, and then gathering around a fire in an oil drum. This is not the Caribbean of travel brochures or commercials for Sandals: It is poor and storm-ravaged, a hardscrabble piece of rock. (Although the script never specifies the location, it is clearly Haiti.) The musical's opening lines -- "There is an island where rivers run deep. Where the sea, sparkling in the sun, earns it the name, Jewel of the Antilles" -- have never sounded so ironic.

This seeming disconnect demands that we listen closely to the opening number, "We Dance," which, despite its upbeat melody and joyful movement, establishes two fundamental facts: Life in this place is governed by a quartet of sometimes meddling, sometimes beneficent gods, and a rigid class system separates the rural poor from the wealthy "grands hommes" of the capital city. One line of the song leaps out, shocking in its honesty: "We are dancing just to stay alive!" In Arden's vision, music and movement are put in service of an affirmation that is as necessary to these characters as light and air, an insistence that, even in the midst of destruction and want, something about life remains defiantly, necessarily good.

Next comes the introduction of Ti Moune, the young heroine, who, as an infant, is delivered into the hands of an older married couple by a powerful storm -- another fairy-tale idea here given a blunt immediacy: The theatre is plunged into darkness and impressive thunder-and-lightning effects are cued, along with a powerful set of fans. Ti Moune appears in a pool of dark blue light, lifted on a shield, rocking back and forth. The effect is violent, wind-whipped; this young girl has been sent on a perilous journey that could, at any moment, end in destruction. Consider, also, how Arden's production handles the four gods who preside over Ti Moune's story. Two of them, Agwe, the water god, and Erzulie, goddess of love, are played straightforwardly -- and most appealingly -- by Quentin Earl Darrington and Lea Salonga. But Arden also scrambles the sexes of the other two, casting Alex Newell as a memorably sassy Asaka, goddess of the earth, and Merle Dandridge, who is tall, imposing, and terrifying, as Papa Ge, god of death. The last character strikes a fateful bargain with Ti Moune, who falls in love with Daniel, the wealthy young man she has pulled out of a crashed car: She persuades Papa Ge to spare Daniel, but she offers her own life, to be claimed at a later date. Papa Ge ever after haunts the action, a forbidding presence avidly waiting to take possession of Ti Moune's soul.

Once on This Island may straddle the line between reality and fantasy, but, in this production, everyone means what they say, whether in the buoyant "Waiting for Life" (sung by a coltish, energized Ti Moune as she imagines her future) or "The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes," a bitterly mordant piece of political theatre that recounts how the island's mixed-race, Europe-worshipping elite was born from French occupiers using the local women for their pleasure. Arden's staging, paced by Camille A. Brown's often ecstatic choreography, is aided by an adept cast. Hailey Kilgore, in her Broadway debut, makes Ti Moune into her own force of nature, her rage to live manifesting itself in her determination to cross the island's mountainous path, find the injured Daniel, and heal his wounds. (He has been claimed by his family.) She has a delightful chemistry with Isaac Powell, as Daniel, and when her big Cinderella moment arrives -- she appears at a ball, titillating the guests with her native gift for dance -- it's easy to believe that she tears up the place. Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller have tremendous dignity and charm as the older couple who, against their original instincts, take in Ti Moune, watching fearfully as the little girl's ambitions grow too large for them to understand. Salonga lends her creamy vocals to "The Human Heart" and Newell invests "Mama Will Provide" with a wicked growl and plenty of diva attitude.

In addition to Laffrey's immersive set design, Clint Ramos, the costume designer, uses multiple print fabrics on the poor characters, suggesting their outfits are pulled together out of odds and ends; he also creates a distinct look for each god and supplies the ball scene with some lovely gowns. The lighting, by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, ranges from sunlight washes to noirish looks employing pools of deeply saturated colors to a stunning rainbow effect, spread across the stage, in the final scene. Peter Hylenski's sound design could be a tad clearer at times, although this may have more to do with certain cast members' diction; he also creates a number of startling effects, including wind and thunder.

In scene after scene, Arden and company draw out the shadows in this island portrait, creating a deeper emotional engagement out of the contrast between light and dark. For all its delights, this production never loses sight of the fact that Ti Moune is headed toward tragedy, that her will isn't enough to overcome the class striations that inform life on the island. Yet, in the finale, we learn how her fate sets the stage for profound changes for succeeding generations. It also sets the stage for the powerful closer, "Why We Tell the Story," which states, "It will help your heart remember and relive/It will help you feel the anger and the sorrow and forgive/For out of what we live and we believe/Our lives become the stories that we weave." The moral of this fable: The world only changes through love, expressed unreservedly and without fear of the consequences. Thanks to Michael Arden and his talented company, this moral has never seemed more urgent. -- David Barbour


(15 December 2017)

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