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A scrappy, effervescent ‘Once on This Island’ returns to Broadway

For this revival of the Caribbean-set musical, the theater has been transformed into an island itself, with sand and water covering the stage.

The cast of

The cast of "Once on This Island," from left, Mia Williamson, Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Michael Arden thought he had a brainstorm. He wanted to direct a revival of the popular 1990 Broadway musical “Once on This Island,” a fable about star-crossed lovers on a storm-swept Caribbean isle. His twist — do it a cappella.

In 2013 he pitched the idea to the show’s creators, book writer and lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty. They said no.

Some three years later, he was back, and with an interested producer, who cajoled the songwriters into a meeting. “We thought, ‘Oh, no, not Michael Arden again,’ ” Ahrens recalls, chuckling. But this time Arden won them over with a more fleshed-out vision for the show, which included, yes, a band, and a plan to both stage the show in the round and transform the theater into an island itself, with sand and water covering the stage.

That vision has now come to life at Circle in the Square, featuring Tony winner Lea Salonga. It opened Dec. 3.

“I gotta hand it to Michael, he was intrepid,” says Ahrens. “We were just swept off our feet.”

The hope is that audiences will be, too. In a season packed with mega-productions like “SpongeBob SquarePants” (which just opened), plus “Frozen” and “Harry Potter” (due next spring), “Island” is a refreshing alternative — a scrappy, effervescent and more intimate show, though it’ll take more of that intrepid spirit to get noticed in a season rife with juggernauts.

MAKING MUCH OUT OF LITTLE

The original production of “Island,” directed by Graciela Daniele, earned praise for its folkloric style, joyous dances and the way it conveyed much with a spare set and a few cleverly used props (a man zipping around the stage holding two flashlights became a car and driver). Arden preserves that heartfelt storytelling, but his is a grittier, more visceral “Island,” complete with a litter-strewn beach and live goats and chickens roaming about.

“We do have a few special effects in our show but hopefully the magic comes from the human element,” he says.

The plot remains the same, with islanders recounting the heroic tale of the young black peasant girl Ti Moune (played by cherubic newcomer Hailey Kilgore), an orphan taken in and raised by an older couple. She grows up and falls for a biracial aristocrat (Isaac Powell), struggling to surmount racial and economic divides, as meddlesome gods (like Salonga, a goddess of love) look on.

Arden’s unusual vision includes unexpected casting, such as “Glee’s” gender-fluid Alex Newell as Asaka, goddess of the Earth (typically a female role) and “Greenleaf’s” sexy Merle Dandridge as Papa Ge, Demon of Death (typically a male).

A TRIP TO HAITI

The script is never specific about where this tale unfolds, but the fictional island’s similarities to Haiti (poverty, natural disasters) are numerous enough that Arden felt it was essential he go there.

“As a white designer and director, I didn’t want to just Google things,” he says. “I wanted to talk to people, see how they experienced the storms.”

He and a small team, including set designer Dane Laffrey, visited last spring — and were stunned by the devastation that still exists post-earthquake (2010) and –hurricane (2016).

After visiting a dilapidated school for the disabled — where the company presented a donation — the group was ushered past armed guards to a nearby luxurious restaurant. Arden excused himself, made his way to the bathroom, and broke down in tears.

“It was such a shock, seeing these two different worlds,” says Arden. “This wasn’t a story — 100 meters away from us there was a kid sitting in squalor with no access to anything and here it was cocktails, piano music and white linens. It was striking. And,” he pauses, “unforgettable.”

THE CHANCE TO REBUILD

Despite the poverty, both Arden and Laffrey (friends since high school) felt Haiti’s richness of spirit.

“It’s in a perpetual state of crisis, but you don’t feel that when you’re there,” says Laffrey. “You feel a resilience in the way things are being constantly rebuilt. That felt like an important thing to convey.”

And so Arden has his actors don costumes from clothes strewed across theater walls, to make costume changes, or creating musical instruments from mouthwash bottles, propane tanks, plastic hoses, all played onstage. (John Bertles, of the Astoria-based firm Bash the Trash, designed the instruments made from “found” objects.)

But if there’s one centerpiece in the show, it’s the downed electric pole, which later serves as a tree and spiritual totem, adorned with photos.

“That’s not stock photography — those are all real people, loved by the company,” says Arden.

He asked cast and crew members to submit images of deceased loved ones, which the crew then framed and affixed to the pole, as if left by villagers.

Ahrens offered up a photo of her late father, and her late cat. Flaherty submitted pictures of his late partner, Artie, who was alive during the original run of the show, his father, grandmother and his husband’s parents.

Arden’s grandparents, who, like Ti Moune’s story, raised him from a young age, are also on the tree.

“That’s probably the reason I wanted to do this,” he says, his voice filling with emotion. “I think, um, the play is about taking responsibility when you don’t have to.”

Flaherty agrees, noting the costumes made from castoff clothing, the instruments made from trash. “This is a show about uplift, and finding a way to continue, no matter the cards you’re dealt.”

THEY WRITE THE SONGS

When “Once on This Island” first made a splash on Broadway nearly 30 years ago, earning eight Tony nominations, including one for best musical, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were unknowns. Today, they are Broadway vets, acclaimed for musicals like “Ragtime,” or their latest hit, “Anastasia,” which opened last spring and is running at the Broadhurst Theatre, six blocks from “Island.”

“Part of the fun this year is seeing these two shows coexist, but they’re so wildly different — you might not guess they were written by the same people,” says Flaherty.

“Anastasia,” set in Russia and France, boasts soaring melodies and a classically inspired score, while “Island” is marked by its Afro-Caribbean patter and jaunty Calypso beat.

The writing process was different, too. The book for “Anastasia” was written by playwright Terrence McNally, which meant waiting for him to write a scene before writing a song, or the reverse. “It was more start and stop — write, think, then write again,” says Ahrens. The show took some six years to grow, from first workshop to Broadway opening.

Writing “Island” took just six months, with the then-fledgling songwriters sitting together for hours, acting out scenes and songs.

“It was actually the fastest writing we’ve ever done before or since,” says Flaherty.

“There’s something about this show,” Ahrens chimes in. “There’s a joyous quality to it that just leaps to life.” — JOSEPH V. AMODIO

WHAT “Once on This Island”

WHERE Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway (at West 50th Street), Manhattan

INFO $69.50 to $169.50, 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

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