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Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th, Manhattan

Once on this Island

Review by Deirdre Donovan

Reviewed on Nov. 4, 2018, Open Run

This enchanting musical revival approaches its first anniversary on Broadway.

Click here for production photos

Once on this Island hasn’t lost its charm as it nears its first anniversary at Circle in the Square, where it opened last season to rave reviews. Directed by Michael Arden, the production won the 2018 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. No question it was well-deserved.

It tells the tale of Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), an intrepid peasant girl who falls head over heels for a privileged boy from the other side of the island. Although the cultural gap is huge between the two young lovers, Ti Moune trusts her heart—and the ancient island gods—to show her the path to true love. Her quest for love, in fact, is at the center of this myth that seamlessly blends together the natural and supernatural.

So what have writers Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) put into this musical that makes it so enchanting? Well, to begin, Ahrens has penned a bittersweet story that contains universal truths. Adapted from the novel Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love, Ahrens writes gorgeous dialogue as well as lyrics that neatly dovetails with Flaherty’s vibrant music. Add on Camille A. Brown’s crisp choreography, and Clint Ramos’ exotic costumes, and you have a production that glows.

But the writing, music, choreography, and costumes, as good as they are, are only part of the reason that this revival soars. Dane Laffrey’s full-immersion set captures the mood and atmosphere of the island. Those in the front row get to plant their feet in the sand and are within whispering distance of the cast. No seat in this intimate theater, in fact, is far from the stage. And the audience can easily eavesdrop on the islanders as they live their lives and dream their dreams.

Was that a goat that just breezed by my aisle seat? Indeed, it was. I wasn’t expecting such a close brush with the island’s wildlife here. But this show is full of surprises, and this thespian goat is one of them.

The songs—twenty in all—pretty much drive the action. And, happily, there are some powerhouse singers among the cast who can belt out the lyrics like nobody’s business.

And who can resist the soulful “And the Gods Heard Her Prayer,” sung by Asaka (Alex Newell), Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), Papa Ge (Rodrick Covington), and Erzulie (Darlesia Cearcy)? Or the innocent “Waiting for Life,” rendered tenderly by Ti Moune (Kilgore)? Or the celestial finale “Why We Tell the Story” that will linger with you long after you exit the show.

The ensemble acting is sturdy. But the story truly comes alive when the willowy Hailey Kilgore makes her entrance as Ti Moune. Dressed in a flame-red dress, with a matching flower in her hair, Kilgore’s Ti Moune exudes youth and innocence. She is like an unpicked island flower that draws everyone’s eye and radiates a natural beauty.

This musical has no identity problem. It is not an update of the Cinderella tale—or any other story out of Grimm’s. It is a myth that lies deep in the psyche of islanders living in the French Antilles. And it’s impossible to hear it without being deeply moved.

Although the Great White Way is awash with new musicals this season, Once on This Island still shines like a gem among the newcomers.

Open run.

At Circle in the Square Theatre

235 W. 50th Street, Manhattan

For tickets, visit www.telecharge.com or tel. 212.239-6210.

Running time:  90 minutes with no intermission

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