Since it premiered in 1990, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Caribbean-flavored fairy-tale musical “Once On This Island” has been performed by numerous schools and amateur groups, but there has probably never been a production quite like the stunning new Broadway revival at Circle in the Square.
Emphasizing the musical’s themes of natural disaster and economic inequality, director Michael Arden brings an unexpected dose of gritty realism, while also honoring its gorgeous score of dynamic group numbers and tender ballads. Vocal fireworks and full-bodied dance choreography imbue spirituality and joyful theatricality.
In a program note, Arden (who previously staged the inventive 2015 “Spring Awakening” revival) acknowledges that his take on the musical was influenced by “the ever-growing number of disasters occurring around the world” and on-site research in Haiti.
As the audience enters the arena-style theater, the cast is already onstage, portraying contemporary islanders who have just endured a major hurricane. Wearing dirty clothes and standing around the ravaged, sand-covered landscape, they seek food, water, supplies and medical assistance. Some farm animals even join the busy scene.
When thunder is heard, suggesting that more danger and damage on the way, the adults comfort a frightened child with the story of Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), an orphan girl who defied her adoptive parents (Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller) and a quartet of powerful gods (Lea Salonga, Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alex Newell) to save a wealthy, young man (Isaac Powell) from death and then romantically pursue him.
By staging the production in the round and adding immersive touches, the audience is made to feel as if it is in the shoes of the child, listening firsthand to the narrated story. Further, Ti Moune’s struggles are reflected in the strained physical circumstances of those telling it in the present day.
Kilgore, who won her role following an international casting search, is unlike any Ti Moune I’ve ever seen. She is vivacious and unruly instead of winsome and innocent, which makes the character’s ultimate fate seem inevitable.
She and the superb supporting cast essentially grab the audience and proceed to take it on an exciting, emotional and extraordinary 90-minute journey.