Gender-Fluid 'Once On This Island' Is Dazzling, Exhilarating Joy
It would be easy to run out of superlatives that describe the gorgeous, delightful and supremely creative Broadway revival of Once On This Island, winner of the 2018 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Musical,” running strong nearly a year after opening at New York City’s Circle in the Square Theater.
But it’s also just as easy to pick one word to describe this theatrical experience: Joy.
In a world that seems turned upside-down at times, director Michael Arden’s grounded new staging of this musical fable about a boy and girl named Daniel and Ti Moune set in the French Antilles is a testament to the belief that that which lifts us up can conquer darkness.
This is theater-in-the-round, so expect to enjoy the show as an environmental experience from the moment you enter the space.
The show begins with the citizens of this island intermittently entering the sandy beach to begin their day. Along the way, there’s trash to pick up (guess where the cast’s props come from?), greetings to make, and goats (live ones) to walk.
But then, a storm frightens a small girl and the denizens of the island take on different roles to tell the story of Ti Moune, sharing the lesson that love can “withstand the storm, and cross the earth, and survive, even in the face of death.”
The winning score by musical theater veterans Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Anatasia) is easily one of the most melodic currently on Broadway. Kudos to music supervisor Chris Fenwick for undeniably artful singing throughout the show. From lead vocals to the sung sounds of birds and frogs, this is high-end musicality.
And speaking of leads, the casting here is perfection as each actor steps forward to take their turn in the spotlight.
From Alex Newell’s “Asaka – goddess of the earth,” who brings down the house with an exuberant and effervescent “Mama Will Provide;” to Quentin Earl Darrington’s “Agwe – god of the ocean,” who sets the stage for Ti Moune and Daniel to meet with vocal power that’s truly a force of nature (“Rain”); Darlesia Cearcy’s “Erzulie, goddess of love” is delicious bringing the two young lovers together in “Human Heart;” and American Idol alum Tamyra Gray is stunning as “Papa Ge, god of death.”
Oh yes, you’ll note Newell and Gray take on their roles through gender-blind casting, which works flawlessly.
In Michael Arden’s island world, the temperamental gods are gender fluid.
The beauty here is that once the story begins, the commitment to storytelling is such that we don’t think about gender, just the tale being told – to spectacular effect.
While gods have their power, Kenita R. Miller and Boise Holmes, who play “Mama Euralie” and “Tonton Julian” respectively, bring grounding, vulnerable humanity as the couple that adopts young Ti Moune.
Their goodbye to Ti Moune as she leaves them to journey to her destiny is a heartfelt, emotional highpoint.
Other intimate moments, like the lilting “Some Girls,” sung with charming warmth by “Daniel” (Isaac Powell), allows romantic respite from larger numbers.
And then there’s the fire and grace of Hailey Kilgore, whose Broadway debut as Ti Moune was fittingly honored with a Tony Award nomination for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” and a Theatre World Award.
Her vocal range and artistry, front and center in the joyful “Waiting for Life,” is only equaled by her earthy, ebullient passion on display in “Ti Moune’s Dance.”
And speaking of dance, choreographer Camille A. Brown (Drama Desk nomination) brings a physical vocabulary that provides a visual, human heartbeat throughout the evening in moments big and small.
You may remember the sexy, richly organic staging she brought to the Emmy Award-winning Jesus Christ Superstar Live! earlier this year on NBC.
This isn’t “TV dance competition high kicks and spins.” From storyteller to storyteller, every movement throughout the evening is borne out of characters living in the moment.
I’m not the only one who’s smitten. The critics fell over themselves when the production debuted:
“A big, bold, ravishing delight! After seeing this imaginative and dynamic musical, you may feel once is not enough!”– New York Times
“Bewitching and beautiful!” – New York Daily News
“A place where magic is possible and beauty is apparent for all to see!” - The Huffington Post
“Impossible to resist!” – NY1
Once On This Island is intimate, romantic, inspiring, and uplifting.
Go see this gorgeous revival of Once On This Island at Circle in the Square on Broadway and feel your spirit refreshed.
Once On This Island is joy.
Before becoming a journalist, Randy Slovacek spent decades working as an actor on Broadway and in national touring companies. The opinions here do not express those of Instinct Magazine or its contributors.