WHAT ‘Once on This Island’
WHERE Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway (on 50th), Manhattan
INFO $69.50 to $169.50, telecharge.com, 212-239-6200
BOTTOM LINE A joyful revival of the 1990 musical.
Horrific scenes from hurricane-ravaged islands are all too familiar these days. But the winds that howl in the opening moments of “Once on This Island” bring nothing but joy.
The revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical is a glorious 90 minutes of Caribbean song and dance, as villagers calm a tiny child terrified by the thunder with a poignant folk tale about bringing people together.
A bit of “Little Mermaid” with some “Sabrina” thrown in, it is the story of Ti Moune, a young girl orphaned in a storm who falls for a boy from the other — more upper-class — side of the island somewhere in the French Antilles. Much was made of the search to cast the right actress, with producers holding open auditions in Haiti and all over the United States before settling on Oregon teen Hailey Kilgore for the part that won LaChanze a Tony nomination in the original production. It won’t be surprising if Kilgore follows a similar path — she is radiant in the role, combining a powerful voice with the obvious wonder of suddenly finding herself on a Broadway stage.
Not that she’s alone out there. Traveling across the island to reunite with her love, Ti Moune, curious about why she was saved when so many others perished, turns to the island’s revered gods for answers. These are formidable gods, as are the actors playing them: Tony winner Lea Salonga is a compassionate Erzulie, goddess of love; Merle Dandridge, frightening as demon of death Papa Ge; Quentin Earl Darrington, a powerful water god Agwe; and Alex Newell (Unique of “Glee”), commanding and fun-loving in another Broadway debut as earth mother Asaka.
But really this is an ensemble piece, and the superb cast is fun to watch cavorting across the sand-covered stage, occasionally playing instruments made of found objects. Choreographer Camille A. Brown lets them cut lose with energetic, ethnic-influenced dances, and as he leads the folk tale to its tearjerker of an ending, director Michael Arden beautifully embraces the message of “Why We Tell the Story,” the show’s emotional closing number.
One more thing: Come early. The production starts well before the advertised curtain time, with a preshow that sets the mood as actors roam about. A few pick up trash, there’s cooking going on in one corner, someone’s fishing from the upper seats. A frisky goat makes an appearance, then a caged rooster. By the time those winds begin to howl, you are completely immersed in another world.