Review: “Once on This Island” at Circle in the Square Theatre

By Jonathan Spira on 20 December 2017
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Coming into the Circle in the Square Theatre on an icy winter’s day, the stark contrast of islanders fishing in the lagoon, milling on the beach, and parading around a goat wearing a diaper was striking. Theatergoers in the first row had their feet in sand.

It’s clear something untoward had happened. The upturned boat, what appears to be workers tending to the villagers, their shoes and clothing hung out to dry.

Better watch out: On this island the gods are temperamental and anything can happen. Indeed, the villagers implore the gods to protect them from the elements in the opening number, “We Dance.”

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This is the world of “Once on This Island,” a one-act musical, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, which made its Broadway debut in 1990 and transferred to the West End in 1994, where it won the 1995 Olivier Award for Best Musical.

“Once on This Island” was adapted from a novel by Trinidad-born writer Rosa Guy and bears certain parallels to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”

On a dark and stormy night on the island in the Antilles, a little girl, the adorable Mia Williamson, is found up a tree and rescued by the peasant couple Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Julian (Philip Boykin).

So begins the story of Ti Moune and Daniel Beauxhomme (Hailey Kilgore and Isaac Powell making their noteworthy Broadway debuts), the grown-up version of the little girl who falls in love with a grand homme, after she saves his life following a car crash. The peasants are “black as night” and live simple lives on one side of the island, while the grands hommes, lighter-skinned descendants of the original French planters and their slaves, live in great prosperity on the other side.

We get some of the backstory within the Beauxhomme family with a bit of shadow theater entitled La Triste Histoire des Beauxhommes. Put succinctly, the first child born of a French father and indigenous mother resulted in exile for the son and progeny on the island.

Daniel, of course, must marry within his class, which leaves Ti Moune on the other side of the fence and racial divide that separates the two worlds. Two star-crossed lovers in a tale of tragic romance that dates back to antiquity.

Four gods guide Ti Mourne’s journey. Lea Salonga, the Filipina Broadway star who originated the role of Kim in “Miss Saigon” plays Erzulie, the exuberant goddess of love, while Alex Newell, of “Glee” fame where he played trans student Unique, makes his Broadway debut as the god Asaka, delivering the showstopper, “Mama Will Provide.” The gods are rounded out by Broadway veteran Merle Dandridge as Papa Ge and Quentin Earl Darrington, who delivered a powerful Coalhouse Walker in the last Broadway revival of “Ragtime,” is Agwe.

Some fairy tales don’t, however have fairy tale endings and such is the case here, where it’s more along the life lesson variety versus living happily ever together.

Leaving the theater, deterred only by the icy sidewalks, the exuberant songs stayed with me and all I wanted to do was dance down 50th Street. Perhaps you will as well.

THE DETAILS

Once on This Island
1633 Broadway
New York, N.Y. 10019
Runtime: 1 hour and 30 minutes
www.onceonthisisland.com

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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