Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: Once On This Island Will Provide

By Michael Block

In its first major revival on Broadway, Once on This Island makes a triumphant return. With an atmospheric staging at the Circle in the Square Theater, the focus here is the importance of stories during devastation as stories, at the end of the day, are universal to us all. With the visionary direction of Michael Arden, Once on This Island is the production we needed today.
Written by prolific songwriting team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Once on This Island follows a group of storytellers who share the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl who falls in love with an upper class boy as she tries to navigate the battles of class and the four gods who rule the French Antilles, Asaka, Mother of the Earth, Agwe, god of Water, Erzuile, goddess of Love, and Papa Ge, demon of death. Inspired by Rosa Guy’s “My Love, My Love; of The Peasant Girl,” Once on This Island is a beautiful story with a lively score with a tropical flair. This revival is a showcase of the ability of storytelling. Michael Arden’s direction is nothing short of breathtaking. The transformation of the theater by Dane Laffrey brings the Caribbean to Manhattan. It’s a sandbox of ingenuity. Just the simple inclusion of live animals, a chicken and a goat to be specific, brought things over the top. Arden takes the idea of found object storytelling as the central theme of his own storytelling. Clint Ramos dresses the characters, both in and out of story, in attire reminiscent of the island life. Items the audience sees on stage during the preshow are brought in to create some of the gods’ wardrobe, playing into the idea of reality and imagination. The orchestrations from Annmarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin is stunning, especially through the addition of the found instrument design by John Bertles and Bash the Trash. Why use a storm sound cue when you can use instruments! There are challenges in staging when performing in the round, but lighting designers certainly have their work cut out for them. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer made it look easy. Arden needed to ensure that the movement in this piece was genuine. Choreographer Camille A. Brown did her homework and aced it from start to finish.
Once on This Island showcased one of the most infectious ensembles on Broadway today. There was not a single weak link in the cast, as each person blended into one cohesive unit. Its original production put its young star, LaChanze, on the map. Similarly, this revival is doing the same for the young woman in the same role. Haley Kilgore gives a delightful debut performance laced with heart and promise. Ahrens and Flaherty have a killer score, but “Mama Will Provide” is certainly a showstopper, thanks in part to Alex Newell’s vocal dexterity. Newell’s tone is pure with moments of growl and whistle tone. Newell’s effervescent performance as Asaka is easily tops of the season. On the other side of the spectrum, Lea Salonga gives a strikingly contained performance as Erzulie. Salonga’s take on “The Human Heart” gives shivers.
No, this production is not revolutionary, but it is unequivocally refreshing. If you don’t walk out of the venue with a smile, you heart may be a few sizes too small. The score will remain with you for days. If you are aware of your surroundings, you can see how the world today was infused in the production. It may feel hammered in, but Arden and his talented company have captured hearts and remind us not only why we tell stories, but why we dance.