Review: ‘Once on This Island,’ Revived and Ravishing

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A review by Jesse Green for the New York Times.

I wasn’t expecting the goat in diapers.

Nor did I arrive at Circle in the Square the other night anticipating the panorama of village folk barbecuing on the beach, fishing in the lagoon and going about their daily business in a joyful preshow panorama on the theater’s lozenge-shaped stage.

Had the show never started, I would have been quite content.

But then it did, and all I can say is that after a dismal theatrical fall, in which even the highlights seemed ashen, what a delight it is to enter the world of “Once on This Island.” The musical, first seen on Broadway in 1990, opened on Sunday in a ravishing revival directed by Michael Arden.

You may not know that name, though if you saw Mr. Arden’s reformulated “Spring Awakening” for Deaf West Theater in 2015, you’d remember his signature. It’s a big signature, maximally decorative and triply underlined.

That ornateness is perfectly suited to “Once on This Island,” a fable of love and death and temperamental gods set in the French Antilles. Like all fables, it is very simple in outline — and thus arguably better suited to literary rather than theatrical expression. After all, what happens? A girl from one clan falls for a boy from another, the impossibility of their match leading to tragedy and transformation.

Oh wait, that’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

So is this, except that here the boy and girl are named Daniel and Ti Moune. They do not represent Shakespeare’s “two households both alike in dignity” but rather, as the opening number puts it, “two different worlds on one island.” Daniel is a son of the “grands hommes,” with their “pale brown skins” and French ways. Ti Moune, a “peasant,” is poor and “black as night.” The problem of colorism added to class prejudice gives this slim folkloric story as much complexity as it can handle on the page.

But in adapting Rosa Guy’s novel “My Love, My Love” to the stage, Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) faced the difficult problem of deepening our investment in the characters’ feelings and conflicts, the way the verse in Shakespeare does, without overwhelming their power as prototypes. The authors’ nearly perfect solution is a pastiche Caribbean score whose words are restrained and delicately rhymed but whose music is relentlessly grabby and emotional.

Later in their careers, as Ms. Ahrens and Mr. Flaherty took on big-boned projects like “Ragtime” and “Anastasia,” they produced big-boned songs that sometimes struck me as turgid. But in this, their first Broadway outing, they were able to keep even the exuberant numbers in scale, so that a showstopper like “Mama Will Provide,” sung to rattle the roof by the ferocious Alex Newell, doesn’t literally stop the show. And the quiet establishing songs for Ti Moune (“Waiting for Life”) and Daniel (“Some Girls”) do not get lost despite quietly sensitive renderings by Hailey Kilgore and Isaac Powell, making lovely Broadway debuts.

If you wondered about Mr. Newell’s singing a song called “Mama Will Provide,” that’s surely something that Mr. Arden, the director, intends. “Mama” is one of those temperamental gods, a Mother Earth figure called Asaka, and in Mr. Arden’s vision, the gods are gender fluid. (Mr. Newell played the transgender character Unique Adams on “Glee.”) Likewise the death god, Papa Ge, is played by a woman, Merle Dandridge, rocking a bra. More subtly, the actors, of a variety of skin tones, are not obsessively matched to one another or to the colors suggested by the script. Lea Salonga, the Filipina Broadway star, plays Erzulie, the goddess of love; the heroic-voiced Quentin Earl Darrington, as the water god Agwe, is blue.

And guess what? It makes no difference.

Or, rather, it does, by exemplifying the ludicrousness of such distinctions and underlining the show’s bid to be seen as a universal story that every culture enacts and anyone can tell. (Eight performers, called storytellers, have been added to the cast of this revival.) If Mr. Arden’s casting choices also take some of the pressure off possible questions of cultural appropriation — he and the show’s authors are white — so be it; the larger point is worth making right now.

But only if it’s made well, and Mr. Arden’s staging serves his top-to-bottom terrific cast of black and Hispanic and Asian actors beautifully. In fleshing out the world of the story and annotating every corner of the audience’s experience — hello, goat! — Mr. Arden gives the performers the kind of backdrop that both grounds them and provides contrast for their big, bold emotions. He has also aced every theatrical trick he’s torn from the ancient handbook, freshening the show, and the tricks, in the process.

I stopped jotting down those tricks at a certain point, perhaps after a fan representing a storm gale blew my notebook’s pages about. Still, I recall that they included Ti Moune’s split-second metamorphosis from child to young woman, the car accident that lands Daniel in Ti Moune’s care, a shadow play relating the island’s history of class enmity, a secret switch of a sleeping body, a journey, a death, a flood and a firefly.

Other effects are incremental: The gods, who begin, like everyone else in the show, as workaday members of the island community, only slowly take on their lordly affect and spectacular regalia. (Asaka’s tablecloth skirt and a trash tiara for Erzulie are among the many small delights of Clint Ramos’s often hilarious costume design.) Other effects are environmental, including the scenic design, a dense bricolage of found objects by Dane Laffrey that keeps revealing new surprises. At a certain point you may think you’ve spotted them all, but have you looked under the sand?

The hallmark ingenuity, warmth and intensity bordering on excess that characterize Mr. Arden’s style is recapitulated everywhere within the production, from the frankly stupendous singing (Chris Fenwick is the music supervisor) to the electric choreography of Camille A. Brown. Everyone is working on the same crammed page.

If all this is five percent too Technicolor, five percent too illustrative, I’d rather have that than a production that is five percent too dour. “Once on This Island” is, after all, a sad story already, and Mr. Arden hasn’t fiddled with that. (The text is barely changed.) So if Ti Moune’s tragedy must end, like so many fables, in another miracle transformation, in our dark season, let it be a gorgeous one.

Once on This Island
Circle in the Square

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