How important are the stories we tell?
Whether they be true or not, the tales we spin connect us, unite us, sometimes even divide us. Our need to define our truth is evident every day. The news is littered with stories about people who believe one thing, say another, and create something else when we close our eyes. This is particularly true when devastation strikes. When a storm rushes through your world and wipes all your worldly possessions away all you may have left is your story.
In the revival of Once On This Island, weaving and patching your truth together, your history, is as important for survival as finding food or shelter. A storm has ravished the island, leaving little left but songs, stories and hope. The musical follows Ti Moune, a young girl who falls for a boy who lives on the other side of the island. That other side, however, is more than miles away - it is worlds apart. When divine intervention brings these two young people together, and then separates them, Ti Moune journeys to be with the love of her life.
In the hands of Tony Award-nominated director Michael Arden, this simple quest becomes a complicated journey that infuses politics, social commentary, classism and good old fashioned love wrapped in warm musical numbers and extraordinary choreography from Camille A. Brown.
It all begins with location. In the macro, the Circle in the Square Theatre is the perfect venue for this production. The chaos and devastation of the storm are in full view. The set is all sand and debris, where the residents have to pick through to make something out of nothing. A goat in a diaper roams across the set both out of place and natural at the same time.
The show really gets going with the beautiful “One Small Girl” the number that explains it all for the audience. A storm, a girl winds up in a tree. An elderly couple who have neither food or any other resources, discover her and have to decide to help her.
Luckily for Ti Moune, she has the help of four Gods played with fun and fierceness. Tony Award Winner Lea Solanga, (best known for her role in Miss Saigon for which she won the Tony) plays Erzulie. Quentin Earl Darrington (Cats and Ragtime) plays the Agwe, Glee alum Alex Newell plays Asaka, the mothering Goddess, and Merle Dandridge (of Rent and Greenleaf fame) rounds out the gods as Papa Ge.
The interplay between the Gods and their musical numbers would be enough to satisfy most audience members. “Once On This Island” is really about family at its core. Kenita R. Miller and Phillip Boykin play Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian, adoptive parents with a ferocious love for each other and young Ti Moune. It's that love that fuels Ti Moune when rations are low, or when she sees a young man in need. She can’t help but give. She can’t help but love, it was how she was raised, part of her DNA.
Hailey Kilgore, who plays Ti Moune, has the weight of the story on her back. She carries the load with ease, able to transcend from young girl to woman, to legend, all while maintaining a relatability on stage. She is the embodiment of love. It is her destiny to give it. Her love is so powerful her parents don’t understand it. The people laugh at it, the gods wonder and marvel at it. Her love, however, carries us through the narrative arc of this story. Her love is constant no matter the consequences.
Of course, to get to that revelation poor Ti Moune must go through a lot. Thankfully for the audience, her trek is couched in brilliant performances, dances numbers, and songs that will have you humming long after the show is over.
Alex Newell offers a stand out performance as the goddess Asaka. The role challenges the idea of gender with Newell playing a role that starred actress Kecia Lewis in the original 1990 Broadway production. This choice proves exciting, modern, and fundamental to the story telling. Mothers, as we see in the musical, aren’t just biological, but the people who care for you. Mama Euralie and Asaka care for Ti Moune as if they carried her in their wombs.
When Newell sings “Mama Will Provide” you feel Ti Moune will be protected. Newell’s voice covers the room, like a thick warm blanket, with a rich tone that makes you want more and more.
Dandridge as Paga Ge. All I can say is “Come through Greenleaf.” The actress does great work as Death, challenging both the perception of that role and the power of it. Her voice grabs at the lower registers of her range and delivers a guttural creepy tone that is chilling and invigorating to watch.
There is a scene in the musical with Daniel, the young boy from the other side of the island, played with heart and innocence by Isaac Powell, that elevates this show from a very good show to a great show. We’ll call it the “car scene.” Once you see it you will understand. Arden knows how to use light and dark, shadow and shape, to expand a scene and make it an experience.
The efficiency and imagination of the set design and staging are breathtaking. Everything on that stage has a purpose. Everything on that stage has meaning. To the dolls in the little girl's hands to the abandoned telephone pole.
“Once On This Island” is a journey about how the stories we pass down have value and meaning and how love is always the greatest story ever told. And I for one, am here for it.