Review: Once On This Island Blows Into Town Like a Breath of Fresh Island Air
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, December 4, 2017
There’s so much going on in the new revival of Once On This Island, which opened last night at Circle in the Square, that it’s hard to differentiate the marvelous from the merely excellent.
There’s a pot of vegetables cooking, sending off a scrumptious aroma. There’s a goat—in diapers, no less. And a little girl reading a book. And a boat and trees, wash hung out to dry, two chickens, people fishing and talking and laughing and meeting. There is great joy and vitality, which continues from the pre-curtain action right through to the last ravishing moment.
This 1990 musical by lyricist and book writer Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Anastasia), directed here by Michael Arden, takes place on an island in the French Antilles. The story is a simple one, as old as, well, Romeo and Juliet. Boy from one world meets girl from another, they fall in love, things do not, of course, end well. But the deceptively simple story is woven around lush, powerful, music and lyrics, and a closet full of theatrical magic that includes a disappearing body, a little girl who metamorphoses into a grown woman, a shadow play, a flood, four fierce and frolicsome gods, and a heck of a lot more. Set designer Dane Laffrey did overtime imaginative work here, and it’s sometimes too much to take in.
Bits and pieces of the crowded set also metamorphose: a plastic tablecloth becomes a colorful dress, a shawl a gown, pieces of flotsam turn into a car. But of course, when gods are involved anything is possible, and the foursome of eternal beings in this fairy tale are a mighty powerful and talented bunch. Alex Newell blows back your hair as the Mother Earth goddess, Asaka. The death god, Papa Ge, is Merle Dandridge with a ridge made of Coca-Cola signs down her back. Broadway star Lea Salonga brings her luscious voice to the elegant goddess of love, Erzulie. And blue-skinned Quentin Earl Darrington is the water god Agwe.
Yes, that’s a man playing Mother Earth and a woman playing Papa Ge. Because if you’re willing to believe in gods, why not gender fluid ones? It’s another marvelous theatrical note, and when Alex Newell belts out “Mama Will Provide” it doesn’t matter if Mother Earth is a he or a she: this being is truly divine.
Not only the gods are powerful talents in this endlessly entertaining production. Our Romeo and Juliet of the Island, Hailey Kilgore and Isaac Powell, are as charming as any breathless audience member could want.
Such talent, such beauty, such ingenuity: In this chilly season, at the end of this exhausting year, Once On This Island is a welcome escape: exuberant, inspiring, and totally heavenly.
Once On This Island at the Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Street in an open run. Run time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission. Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Michael Arden; choreography by Camille A. Brown; scenic design by Dane Laffrey; costume design by Clint Ramos; lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound design by Peter Hylenski; hair/wig and make-up design by Cookie Jordan.
Cast: Phillip Boykin, Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alysha Deslorieux, Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Emerson Davis, Tyler Hardwick, Cassondra James, David Jennings, Hailey Kilgore, Grasan Kingsberry, Loren Lott, Kenita R. Miller, Alex Newell, Isaac Powell, T. Oliver Reid, Lea Salonga, Aurelia Williams, and Mia Williamson.
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Cover: (l. to r.) Mia Williamson, Alex Newell and Hailey Kilgore in ‘Once On This Island;’ photo: Joan Marcus.