“Orphan of the Storm”
“Two different worlds on one island,” is a lyric heard early in Once on this Island, the Circle in the Square's sparklingly enjoyable revival of the 1990 musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). It’s easy to take the line as a simplistic metaphor for our current divisions: racial, sexual, economic, and political. This mostly upbeat show, set on a Haiti-like island in the French Antilles, strongly posits love as the solution for binding disparate people together. If only.
Director Michael Arden and his top-tier team, including choreographer Camille A. Brown, set designer Dane Laffrey, costume designer Clint Ramos, lighting design partners Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and sound designer Peter Hylenski have put their remarkable talents together to create a kinetic, intermissionless, 90-minute production with a “devised-theatre” feeling.
Ahrens’s book—based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel, My Love, My Love: Or, The Peasant Girl—is largely a fable told to Little Ti Moune (Mia Williamson), a little orphan girl rescued from drowning by the gods when a horrific flood deluged the island and she was taken in by kindly villagers Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller).
You’re immersed in the dramatic world the moment you walk into the Circle in the Square’s sand-filled, theatre-in-the-oval space, packed to the brim, including laundry drying on the surrounding walls, with the effects of the recent flood; there's even an overturned boat near a watery shoreline. A goat in diapers, as well as other island fauna, are visible as the colorfully shabby peasants go about their business, sometimes even interacting with the all-too-willing audience before the show proper begins. It’s impossible, of course, not to recall the devastation of recent events in the Caribbean and elsewhere but, apart from the influence of "the gods" on human affairs, it really isn't what the show is about.
The fanciful folktale inspires imaginative images—sometimes enshrouded by Arden’s fondness for fog effects—in the costumes and props, which have an improvisatory, deceptively artless, found-object atmosphere. Watch, for example, how pieces of junk become a speeding car. Even sounds contributed, like the whooshing of swimming pool filter tubes held by actors. At one point, fans blow so strongly you can feel the storm’s winds mussing your hair (if you have any).
The story, combining elements of Romeo and Juliet and The Little Mermaid, with a touch of Euripides’ Alcestis, mingles island mythology involving four gods—Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), god of water; Erzulie (Lea Salonga), goddess of love; Asaka (Alex Newell), mother of Earth; and Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge), Demon of Death—with the romantic travails of the grown-up Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore). Ti Moune, from the dark-skinned, peasant side of the island, loves Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell), from the light-skinned, wealthy, French-descended, mixed-race side, where the grande hommes live. When he’s injured in a car crash, she saves his life by offering her own to Papa Ge, who will eventually make good on their deal. The only problem: this homme’s not worth it.
The romance between Ti Moune and Daniel is blocked because of his highborn position, the objection of Daniel’s father, Armand (David Jennings), and his forthcoming arranged marriage to Andrea Deveraux (Alysha Deslorieux); Daniel, of course, is willing to keep Ti Moune as his mistress. Papa Ge cashes in when Ti Moune drowns but love (if you buy it) conquers all when she returns as a tree (crafted here to resemble a telephone cum totem pole) that happily unites everyone on the island. Well, when I think about poor Tree Moune, as I’m tempted to name her, maybe not so happily.
Regardless of the questions its plot raises, the show bursts with ebullient songs, musically underscored dialogue, colorful choreography, shadow pantomime, gorgeous costumes, and awesome lighting, not to mention exceptional performances. The exuberant ensemble is excellent, and slender Hailie Kilgore makes a fine Broadway debut as Ti Moune, both as a singer and dancer (which latter talent she displays when challenged to do so by Andrea). There’s much to love in the work of Boykin, Miller, and Powell, but it’s the four gods you’ll remember best.
Darrington is a potent, deity-like presence, his bulging muscles and shaved head (painted with blue waves) reminiscent of Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. Newell (the transgender student, Unique Adams on TV’s “Glee”), wearing a huge skirt made from a plastic tablecloth, is every inch an earth mother; when he sings “Mama Will Provide,” you can practically feel the earth quake. Dandridge’s (TV’s “Greenleaf”) Papa Ge, looking like the lead singer in a punk rock band, has a deep voice you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. And, of course, the gifted, beautiful Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon), especially in her white gown and exquisite headdress, looks the virtual embodiment of love, reminding us of why she’s a star.
So, before you take that winter trip to the Caribbean, you’d be well advised to check in for a warm-up visit to Once on this Island. You may even find that once is not enough.
Circle in the Square
1633 Broadway (at W. 50th St.), NYC