Once On This Island

by Bobby McGuire

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday December 8, 2017

Mia Williamson, Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore and the cast
Mia Williamson, Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore and the cast  

Do do that voodoo that you do so well.

Midway through the first half of "Once On This Island," as a Caribbean island girl stands vigil over a man she's struggling to nurse away from death's door, one ensemble member comes down one aisle with a live goat while another another enters on the opposite aisle with a bucket of (what appears to be) blood from what presumably came from a penned live chicken we saw earlier on stage during the pre-show.

"Oklahoma!" this ain't.

After an absence of over a quarter century, "Once On This Island," Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty's calypso fairy tale is back on Broadway in a hyper-realistic reimagining that (although heavy-handed at times) is a 90 minute theatrical thrill ride for the emotions.

Inspired by "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Anderson, "Once On This Island" tells the story of the temperamental gods of Water, Love, Earth and Death who rule over an island (modeled after Haiti). To settle an argument over which is more powerful, love or death, the gods take Ti Moune, a restless young girl from the poor side of the island, and set her on a journey to test the boundaries of her love.

After rescuing a rich young man from a car crash, Ti Moune quickly falls in love with him. When Death appears, she strikes a bargain and trades her soul for the young man's life. But the young man comes from the rich side of the island and is in an arranged marriage. After being spurned by the young man and his people, Death returns to Ti Moune. And while the goddess of Love proves her power is greater than Death's, it does not come with out a cost for Ti Moune. And like love itself, the end of the tale is both heartbreaking and exhilarating.

Setting this tale on a storm-ravaged beach, director Michael Arden takes the recent memories of island natural disasters and their effect on the poor, to put greater emphasis on the musical's theme of wealth disparity.

Told as a play-within-a-play, Arden employs a "Wizard of OZ"-like device of giving his unnamed storytellers roles that mirror the characters they'll play in the tale. Agwe, the god of water is played by a fisherman, Erzule the goddess of love is played by a disaster relief nurse, etc...

And while Arden's brand of realism can sometimes kill some of the imagination from the show, it's justified by the raw emotional power it creates. Adding further authenticity is modern dance choreographer Camille A. Brown pulsing Afro-Caribbean inspired dances. Ultimately there are as many things right with this production as there are grains of sand on Dane Laffrey's stunningly real set.

With slight tweaks, Ahrens and Flaherty's score has never sounded better, thanks largely to spectacular vocals by this top flight cast. In a trouser-role, Merle Dandridge's rangey alto injects terror into Papa Ge, God of Death. Quentin Earl Darrington's lush baritone gives Agwe, God of Water, a level of sex to the character's menace.

In another gender-bending turn Alex Newell shows off exuberant vocal acrobatics to Earth goddess Asaka's showstopper "Mama Will Provide." And with nothing more than pure artistry, as Erzulie, Goddess of Love, Lea Salonga turns the show on a dime in a peerless interpretation of "Part of the Human Heart," the least showy song in the score.

In the role that made LaChanze a Broadway star two decades ago, newcomer Hailey Kilgore is nothing short of wonderful. With lithe limbs, an infectious smile, and eyes that open into her soul, Kilgore takes the audience on every twist and turn of Ti Moune's emotional journey, from the excitement of first falling in love to her ultimate heartbreak.

At a brisk 90 minutes, "Once On This Island" is a theatrical tidal wave that washes over you quickly and leaving a lot emotions behind to clean up. Given its theater-in-the-round staging, it may require a second viewing -- once you stop crying.

"Once On This Island" is playing an open-ended run at the Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Streetm in New York City. For tickets and information, visit www.OnceOnThisIsland.com