In this current Broadway revival production of Once on This Island, the simple story of a young girl with a dream is told by a thrilling ensemble, bringing to the forefront the power of love in a way that makes it easy to see why it took home the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
The stage is covered several inches deep in real sand, transformed into a beach, complete with driftwood and washed up debris. A river of real water comes from the aisle right up to the lip of the stage. An overturned rowboat rests on the shore. At the other end of the stage, live musicians are perched atop a cargo truck, its back doors flung wide open. Multicolored clothing hangs on laundry lines throughout the theatre, strung up along the walls.
Enveloped in the sights, sounds and feel of the Caribbean we’re gathered at Circle in the Square in New York City. At this theatre in the round we’ve come to see Once on This Island and before the performance has even started, the stage is surrounded on all sides by an eager audience already fully immersed in the world of the play. We know right away that we’re in for something special and this show does not disappoint.
Once on This Island could just as easily be called “Once Upon a Time on This Island” as the central plot revolves around the telling of an old folk tale. On the surface it’s the story of a peasant girl with the courage to go after her dream, but with interspersed themes dealing with the depth of the human experience. Actually, there is nothing surface about this production.
The peasant girl with a dream is Ti Moune and her courageous journey is made compelling by the obstacles and victories she’s met with along the way. We meet her as a young child (Mia Williamson) and in a moment of theatrical magic we watch her transform before our eyes to become a young woman (Hailey Kilgore). Then when she opens her mouth to sing, we are transfixed. In her Broadway debut, it strikes this writer that Kilgore is doing some brilliant work.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND HAS HEFTY THEMES
The writing does not shy away from themes of love and loss; life and death; and dreams and desperation. It is executed by a company that tells this powerful story with love and passion. This is a true ensemble piece that features all the cast members in full view most of the time.
At the masterful helm of their director (Michael Arden), this cast has come together to bare their souls; an irresistible score is impeccably sung and the dynamic choreography (by Camille A. Brown) is executed with pure vitality.
Theatre in the round gives a unique perspective not just for watching the show, but for allowing us to catch a glimpse of our fellow audience members. In the most moving moments it was touching to see that tears were being shed by so many. In a delicately handled moment involving a tender good-bye, we witness Ti Moune’s yearning to fly free and her parents’ love shown through the simple act of letting go. This was a stand out moment for both Kenita R. Miller and Phillip Boykin who play the parents in this scene with pure honesty.
Perhaps the biggest impressions in this 90-minute musical were the moments of pure joy when the audience erupted in spontaneous cheers. The first of these outbursts occurred at the end of "Mama will Provide," the rousing anthem Asaka (a radiant Alex Newell) sings to Ti Moune. Newell’s performance of this song is otherworldly — in its high screaming tones and in their resulting impact on the listener. The second was after an explosion of choreographic wonder led by Ti Moune and Daniel (played with stirring truth by Isaac Powell) who embodied the movements so fully one might almost believe they were possessed with Island magic.
This show has it all — from the touching moments that bring a tear to your eye, to the poignant moments that make you think. It was easy to tell by looking around during the show and from the immediate standing ovation afterwards that this Monday night audience had a thrilling time in the theatre.
For anyone who needs a reminder of the power to the human spirit and wants to witness the force that love can be in this world, Once on this Island is pure inspiration.
Director: Michael Arden
Choreographer: Camille A Brown
Once On This Island stars Phillip Boykin (Tonton Julian), Tamyra Gray (Papa Ge), Quentin Earl Darrington(Agwe), Alysha Deslorieux (Andrea), David Jennings (Armand), Hailey Kilgore (Ti Moune), Kenita R. Miller (Mama Euralie), Alex Newell (Asaka), Isaac Powell (Daniel) and Lea Salonga (Erzulie). The Storytellers for this production include Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Cassondra James, David Jennings, Grasan Kingsberry, Tyler Hardwick, T. Oliver Reid, and Aurelia Williams.
Open Ended Run
Saturday 2pm and 8pm
Sunday 3pm and 7:30pm
Circle in the Square Theatre
235 W 50th St
New York, NY 10019
About the Author: Leah Oster is a Canadian singer and actor who grew up in small town Ontario, Canada who now divides her time between two of North America’s largest cities: New York City and Toronto.