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Entertainment Weekly

Theater

Once on This Island is a joy-filled Caribbean escape on Broadway: EW review

Joan Marcus

Posted on

There’s a beach smack in the middle of Broadway, and it might just be the ideal break from the cold outside or the hustle and bustle of the holidays. The new production of Once on This Island at the Circle in the Square theater manages to put that post-vacation sea air swing right back into your step.

Just as the colorful Caribbean musical (from Ragtime and Anastasia duo Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty) straddles two time periods and “two different worlds never meant to meet,” the show itself does too — feeling fresh, but also a little bit retro. Once on This Island‘s original Broadway run lasted from 1990 to 1994 and the West End production earned an Olivier for best new musical in 1995. The new production marks its first Broadway revival, and while the music isn’t dated, the new orchestrations by original orchestrator Michael Starobin and AnnMarie Milazzo certainly follow some of the trends set 25 years ago.

The tale is as timely as ever though, as it follows a peasant girl named Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore) who is orphaned and alone following a massive storm in the French Antilles, found marooned in a tree, and adopted. When she gets a bit older, she winds up falling in love with Daniel (Isaac Powell), a wealthy young man from the French-descended dwellers other side of the island, ultimately bringing themes of race and class into the story. But those common themes aren’t where Once on This Island shines brightest; the devil is in the deities. Years after Ti Moune is first welcomed into her village, she prays to the gods — Goddess of Love Erzulie (Lea Salonga of Miss Saigon fame), God of Water Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), Mother of the Earth Asaka (Glee‘s Alex Newell), and Demon of Death Papa Ge (Greenleaf‘s Merle Dandridge) — about her future… and they begin to disagree with one another about whether or not to help Ti Moune. The argument continues as Erzulie declares that love is the strongest element, and Papa Ge challenges her by crashing Daniel’s car and forcing Ti Moune to repeatedly choose between Daniel’s life and her own.

The four gods are all crowdpleasers with standout moments and costumes that become gradually more intricate and otherworldly as the show goes on. But, while Salonga is undoubtedly the biggest Broadway draw of the bunch, her performance is overshadowed by Newell, whose energetic “Mama Will Provide” is a highlight and one of the show’s most memorable and most cheered moments.

An additional moment of cheering comes a bit earlier when little Ti Moune (Mia Williamson, who also plays the present-day timeline’s little girl who is hearing the story of what happened once, on this island) left the stage and returned grown and played by Kilgore. From there, the show rests on the newcomer’s slight but stellar shoulders. The character’s sweetness and naiveté mixes with Kilgore’s killer pipes and dance moves for a dynamite performance filled with heart.

This Island‘s other big winner has to be its set. Theatergoers step in from the cold to find a sand-covered stage populated with actors milling about and parading a live goat up and down the aisles (yes, a live goat), while shirts, shorts, and sandals are strung on clothing lines around the perimeter of the theater. You’ll almost wish you could kick off your shoes and go down to join them.

Once on This Island, which is based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy, runs just over 90 minutes, with no intermission, yet nothing feels rushed. It’s island time, after all, and it’s filled with joy. B+

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