Once On This Island: Hope and Love Branch Out Far and Beyond.
We enter into a world already in motion. It looks like a large sandbox made for adults to play in, reeling in the aftermath of a storm. The sand that covers the stage is littered with debris, a fallen post near the edge of a body of water, and a shack in the background. The characters are salvaging what is left, engaging with one another and the island they inhabit. Wandering about with these island folk who live their lives in the French Antilles is a caring doctor and even a goat (but dontcha dare try to take a picture of it, or you will get a firm scolding). We have definitely landed in another time and place. Fallen into the lush and musically intoxicating 1990 Broadway musical revival, Once On This Island, at the intimate Circle in the Square Theatre, based on the 1985 novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy.
“The story begins on the night of a flood” with thunder booming and lighting flashing overhead. A small girl cries in fear, and in an attempt to comfort her, the village storytellers tell her the intoxicating tale of a peasant girl by the name of Ti Moune, who falls in love with a grand homme, a young gentleman from the other side of the island and a world away from this girl. This is a story of differences, of life, love, and all the pain and effervescence that it may bring. It is also about hope and faith that can reside in a community pulled apart by racial inequality, the walls of differing societal constructs, and destroyed by the turmoil Mother Nature and the Gods can rain down on us silly humans.
It’s a Romeo and Juliet tale, etched with racism and elitism, a perfect fable for the young girl to hear, but also, more importantly for the here and now that we find ourselves. In many ways, I wish we weren’t given privy to these wandering island souls as we take our seats before the play begins. Those first words spoken should instantly transport us, but as staged by director, Michael Arden, it is a slower descent. “There is an island where rivers run deep”, says one of the storytellers breaking the spell and pushing us forward from the real world into theirs. I wanted a more abrupt shift into this musical fable, desiring a greater sense of immediate awe and electricity, although the words smoothly and gently whisked me to her side over time. Once I found myself comfortably there, I could breath in the humid warm air of the Caribbean, and even though those first moments are less than engaging, the first number, ‘We Dance‘, with the uplifting and energetic choreography by Camille A. Brown (PH’s Bella) grab hold of our hearts and souls quickly and we are transported into the world of Once On This Island, as if carried in on an island breeze and rhythmic beat.
There is also the visual splendor of that first storm, courtesy of the beautiful work by set designer, Dane Laffrey (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, Fool For Love), lighting designer, Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer (Broadway’s Shuffle Along…), and sound by Peter Hylenski (Anastasia, Something Rotten). It is enough to thoroughly engage that sense of enchantment that I was so hoping for from the beginning of Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty’s (music) Once On This Island. We see a young girl, played by Emerson Davis (Annie Warbucks) seemingly float in the wild stormy waters of the island. The immense power of all the disasters that have occurred lately around our world; from the storms and earthquakes in Haiti to the latest in Houston and Puerto Rico. They come flickering through our minds and make our heart beat as wild as the scenario in front of us. It’s a powerfully creative introduction to what’s in store, and even though the setting is a bit too busy and cluttered, the focus and energy is as clear and exciting as the music and the movement before us. (for the full review, click here)