Sunday, December 3, 2017

All in the Direction: Once on This Island on Broadway

Alex Newell as Asaka and Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune in Once on This Island. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

A play isn’t just words on a page: a lot depends on how a particular production of a given work succeeds or fails in bringing it to life onstage. That’s one of the fundamental lessons I’m charged with getting across to my students in my introductory theatre courses, and it’s been reinforced for me by the Broadway revival of Once on This Island, which opens this week at Circle in the Square. It’s a textbook example of how a talented director and cast can elevate mediocre material. I’m doubly glad I saw it, because this is probably as good a production of this show as will ever exist, so I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to see another revival.

Once on This Island is based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel My Love, My Love, which is set in the French Antilles in a rather indistinct time period (“then and now,” as the program describes it). It’s framed as a children’s story, told to calm a little girl terrified of a looming storm. It works pretty well, up to a point, as a sort of fairy tale. The heroine, Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), is orphaned by a storm unleashed by Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), the water god, and taken in by a peasant couple, Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin). She grows up to become a pawn of the four gods who watch over her island, taking a central place in a bet between Erzulie (Lea Salonga), goddess of love, and Papa Ge, god (or, in the revival, goddess, as played by Merle Dandridge) of death as to which of them is stronger. Their bet leads them to bring Ti Moune together with Daniel (Isaac Powell), the son of a wealthy family. After Daniel’s car crashes, leaving him barely clinging to life, Ti Moune saves him by offering herself in his place. She subsequently follows the young man back to the rich enclave in which he lives, where they become lovers. (This is the point in the narrative where you might begin to wonder why the storytellers are relating all of this to a young child.) However, Daniel is bound by a previous engagement, and he ultimately rejects Ti Moune, leaving her to wither and die. Her suffering draws out the gods’ compassion, and they turn her into a tree as a memorial to her sacrifice.

The musical was the first major product (excluding the Off-Broadway effort Lucky Stiff) of the ongoing collaboration between Lynn Ahrens, who wrote the book and lyrics, and composer Stephen Flaherty. This is its first major Broadway revival since its initial run from 1990-01, and, with the exception of show-stopper “Mama Will Provide,” none of its songs have really worked their way into the canon of musical-theatre hits. It’s not as if it’s some neglected gem: it’s hampered by problems with how it tells its story, as well as Ahrens and Flaherty’s tendency to paint in broad strokes and primary colors. The fact that it’s a one-act play means that it paradoxically offers both too much and not enough: the plot is awfully busy plot for what’s meant to be a simple fable, and that means that when characters such as Andrea (Alysha Deslorieux) – the woman whom Daniel marries instead of Ti Moune – appear, we have little idea as to who they are, or why they’re suddenly so important to the story. Thematically, the show touches on some interesting, knotty problems, but those sometimes sit uncomfortably within the children’s-theatre frame that Ahrens and Flaherty use to contextualize Ti Moune’s story; at one point, we digress into a lengthy story involving the history of the island and the legacy of French colonialism, which isn’t exactly the stuff of bedtime tales.

However, Michael Arden’s production manages to minimize the considerable flaws in the material and turn it into something that’s often very compelling (for instance, he takes that digression on colonialism and turns it into an engaging shadow play). He adapts the storytelling concept to give the show more contemporary relevance. Now the island on which the story is set is recovering from a hurricane, grounding the little girl’s fear in a much more immediate and real trauma that’s been all too prominent in the news. Dane Laffrey’s set alone serves as a coup de théâtre: the stage floor of Circle in the Square has been entirely covered with sand and debris, with a pool of water located in the vomitorium and the back of a tractor trailer on the other side of the stage. The actors wander about the set before the show, interacting with one another (and with a few live animals) and establishing the frame in which Arden’s chosen to place the musical.

Isaac Powell as Daniel and Merle Dandrige as Pape Ge in Once on This Island. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The realistic setting also allows Arden to establish a greater contrast between the world of the story and the world in which it’s being told: Lea Salonga and Isaac Powell begin the show as relief workers from Médecins Sans Frontières, while Alex Newell, who plays Asaka, wanders about in a torn Atlanta Falcons jersey before being transformed into the goddess. Clint Ramos’s costumes also work wonders toward establishing the sense that this is a makeshift performance that gradually takes on its own reality. For instance, Dandridge’s transformation into Papa Ge is aided by a ragtag costume that nevertheless gives her a menacing, demonic quality – we never entirely forget the realistic grounding of Arden’s production, but we’re meant to let it fall away as we become absorbed in the story. That doesn’t always happen, but more as a result of the limitations of the show itself than because of  Arden’s concept.

If Arden’s successful in distracting from Once on This Island’s shortcomings and emphasizing its strengths, his cast deserves equal credit. Salonga’s gotten top billing in a lot of the promotional material, due to her name recognition, but it’s newcomer Hailey Kilgore who’s the star. Her Ti Moune is a revelation, as she gives a fierce, grounded, and physically dynamic performance. She’s aided by the strong work of choreographer Camille A. Brown, who seems to be responsible for some of the most striking images in the production, and the scene in which Ti Moune dances for Daniel’s upper-caste milieu is a highlight. She’s tricked into doing so by his fiancée, who expects that her lack of polish will render her ridiculous in front of his snobbish peers, but instead her vivacity draws in the other servants in the household and impresses the onlookers. In addition to meeting the physical demands of the scene, Kilgore also manages to take us on a full arc from initial fear and hesitation to ecstatic triumph; it makes the ending of the play, in which Daniel regretfully rejects her, make even less sense.

Many of Kilgore’s castmates also acquit themselves well. Kenita R. Miller and Phillip Boykin are especially affecting as her adoptive parents, and the decision to switch Papa Ge’s gender pays off, as Dandridge seems to ooze cool menace. Salonga’s fine, although her character makes less of an impression; it’s hard to give the goddess of love much of an edge when her main characteristic is bland, sunny goodness. Newell also suffers from the same problem: he’s there to sing the show’s biggest number, but he doesn’t have much to work with when it comes to giving his character any depth.

Ultimately, this revival of Once on This Island serves as a showcase for its talented director, cast, and designers. What they’ve created is ultimately in service to an intriguing, albeit flawed, musical, but it’s a testament to what artists with a strong vision and talent to spare can do with material of mixed quality.

 – Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscenti page and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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