The ungainly in-the-round stage of Broadway’s Circle in the Square is put to imaginative use in director Michael Arden’s inspired revival of “Once On This Island,” the 1990 musical by Lynn Ahrens (book & lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). The imaginative physical design extends to the auditorium, where colorful laundry hangs on the side walls and luxurious vegetation blooms. Everything about Dane Laffrey’s immersive set design welcomes the audience to the little island in the French Antilles where this pretty but sad fable is set.
This little island may be the “Jewel of the Antilles,” as its inhabitants claim in the lively musical prologue, but the forces of nature are so fickle that people must take care not to offend the temperamental gods. Gorgeously decked out in Clint Ramos’s flamboyant costumes (and Cookie Jordan’s artistic application of body paint), the most powerful of these gods are Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Alex Newell, who has an amazing vocal range); Agwe, God of Water (Quentin Earl Darrington, rippling with sparkling blue muscles); and Erzulie, the beautiful Goddess of Love, whose angelic voice belongs to the beautiful Lea Salonga (“Miss Saigon,” “Allegiance”).
The fourth and most terrifying of the gods is Papa Ge, the sly Demon of Death, played with ferocious intensity by Merle Dandridge. (The gender-blind casting accounts for Newell’s and Dandridge’s non-traditional role playing.)
Ahrens and Flaherty (“Ragtime,” “Anastasia”), a well-matched team, produced more than twenty songs for this musical. Besides being perfectly lovely, they also advance the narrative in ways rarely seen. “One Small Girl” begins by telling the origin story of a little girl (Emerson Davis) who survives a fierce storm and is adopted by Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin), who name her Ti Moune. Camille A. Brown’s ebullient choreography captures the joy of a loving childhood. By the end of the same song, the happy child (“Sweet as a eucalyptus / And terrible as a tempest”) has bloomed into a beautiful young woman played with grace – and a fire within – by the spirited Hailey Kilgore.
A sequence of dramatic songs – from “Waiting for Life to Begin” through the heartbreaking “Forever Yours” – take Ti Moune on the journey of love she recklessly embarks on when she saves the life of Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell), a beautiful youth from the other side of town where the rich folks live. Ignoring her father’s counsel (“There can never be anything between a peasant and a grand homme”), Ti Moune denies her own life for love of Daniel.
With the gods in a tizzy and Papa Ge stalking Ti Moune’s every move, we know this story can’t end well. But there are many beautiful songs to go, from the maternal voice of “Mama Will Provide” to the passion of “The Human Heart,” meltingly sung by Salonga.
With “Ti Moune’s Dance,” 18-year-old Kilgore (in a stunning red gown) flies into a wild calypso number that graphically reveals the depths of Ti Moune’s feverish love for the thing of beauty she can’t possess. The same number should also clinch the future theater career of this thrilling young talent.