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Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Benjamin D. Esham
Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Benjamin D. Esham

BY ELYSE TREVERS

I hesitate when people ask me for theater recommendations since there hasn’t been much that I’ve really liked recently.  After seeing the revival of “Once On This Island” at The Circle in the Square, I now have a show I can wholeheartedly recommend. The one-act musical that opened originally on Broadway in 1990 features a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. 

It’s a love story told in music with themes of love and optimism. The story feels somewhat familiar, reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet” with a touch of “The Little Mermaid.”  When two young people from different worlds fall in love, conflict is inevitable.

The play begins with a storm, accompanied by a strong wind blowing through the theater itself. It’s frightening to a young girl so the villagers tell her of the myth of Ti Moune, an orphan girl who was found up a tree after a similar storm.  Adopted by Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralia (Kenita Miller) she grows to be a beautiful, though dreamy, young girl who wonders why the gods saved her.

Later when a young man, Daniel (Isaac Powell), gets into a serious car accident and is dying, she finds her purpose. She was saved to save him. The only problem is that he is from a different class, and that can only mean trouble and heartbreak. Ti Moune is a peasant, “dark as night,” while Daniel is a lighter-skinned grand homme, a descendant of the original French planters and their slaves.

Despite her adoptive parents’ misgivings, Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore) sets off to nurse Daniel. She offers her life to the Papa Ge: God of Death in exchange for his life. Later when family obligations force him to marry another woman, will she change her agreement with Papa Ge? The story asks – which is stronger, love or death?

Director Michael Arden does a fine job recreating the musical. The story is set in the lush tropical setting of the French Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean Sea (Haiti.) The stage at the Circle in the Square is covered with sand suggesting a beach and is covered with debris, plastic bottles and the like, probably from a recent storm. It’s a simple setting, one that later becomes a mansion and a village. When the young man drives his car, the “Storytellers” pick up litter from the beach and an automobile appears before us. Later, when Ti Moune is ousted from the mansion, “gates” go up (held by two sturdy actors who keep moving them around,) keeping her out.

The musical begins to pulsate from the onset of the show and never stops.  It’s hard not to move to the constant rhythmic melodies. Hailey Kilgore is incandescent as the earnest Ti Moune. Her voice is strong and powerful and when she dances for Daniel and his guests, the theater shakes.

What makes “Once On This Island” so special, besides its marvelous music, is the superb casting of the four gods who rule over the island. Lea Salonga, clad all in white, is in excellent voice as Erzulie, Goddess of Love. Merle Dandridge is incredibly sultry and appealing as Papa Ge: Demon of Death. Alex Newell (“Unique” from TV”s “Glee”) is Asaka: Mother of the Earth, and nearly brought the house down, and powerfully-built Quentin Earl Covington plays a formidable Agwe, God of Water. They are truly a Fantastic Foursome.

Running just over 90 minutes, Once On This Island” is a small compact musical that captivates the audience. Despite the hardships and disasters the islanders endure, they turn to their mythical heroine to inspire them to heal and rebuild. We can’t help but think about the hurricanes this fall and how the islands are struggling to recover. Like people in the Caribbean, “Once On This Island” stays optimistic and upbeat.

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