When you walk in to take your seat at the Circle in the Square you already sense that you are in for something different. The walls are lined with strung up clothing, laundry-drying-style. A lot is going on in the playing area, much of it covered with what resembles sand. Folks are ambling about, one woman is actually cooking with a real stove and a seated youngster is in view. There is also a cage with three live hens. “I didn’t know dinner was being served, “ I joked to the usher. “But they won’t be prepared to your liking,” she shot right back.
One watches the busy goings-on, including someone leading a partly clothed goat about. When the revival of “Once on This Island” (based on the novel “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy) begins, it moves into an ultra-lively explosion of song and dance by a talented company of performers as the inhabitants of an island in the French Antilles who assemble to reveal to us a mythical tale involving love and the gods. This production, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, scenic design by Dane Laffrey, costumes by Clint Ramos and choreography by Camille A. Brown is a visual treat. Director Michael Arden does himself proud.
There is a standout performance by Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune, a young woman who falls in love with Daniel (Isaac Powell) when she nurses him after an accident. He also falls for her, but he is obligated to marry another. When Kiglore as Ti Moune sings “Waiting for Life,” “Discovering Daniel” and does a number called “Ti Moune’s Dance,” it is clear how sensationally talented she is. (This is her Broadway debut.)
A group of storytellers help move the plot along, in word as well as song, and we witness a devastating storm, with lighting and sound effects. Major issues are at play, involving status according to skin shades and class. The most well known in the cast, and probably a major draw for the show, is Lea Salonga as Erzulie, goddess of love. The death god is played by Merle Dandrige. There is also a water god, enacted by Quentin Earl Darrington.
Another favorite song outburst is “Mama Will Provide,” sung by Asaka, a mother earth kind of god portrayed by the impressive Alex Newell. (Gender doesn’t matter in this production.) I also enjoyed Isaac Powell in Daniel’s big number “Some Girls.”
The exuberant spirit of the revival is sustained throughout, not only by the performances and music, but by stage business, including the raising of a tree symbolizing rebirth. Never does the power to engage by this production of “Once on This Island” diminish. At Circle in the Square, 50th Street at Eighth Avenue. Phone: 800-447-7400. Reviewed December 5, 2017.