Sunday, April 22, 2018

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND an enchanting legend revived

Yes, as the advertisement’s banner says, “Our lives become the stories that we weave.” 

In the revival of the one-act “Once on This Island The Musical,” that weaving takes place on Circle in the Square’s rectangular, seat-encircled stage, which has literally been transformed into a sandy island in the Caribbean.  (Over 5 tons of sand were trucked in to accomplish the effect).

Yet another destructive hurricane has struck the forsaken place.

Stray goats and chickens run wild, palm fronds, plastic bags, knocked down huts and random laundry litter the landscape.  Water laps at the shore.  People, out of habit, go about the task of trying to clean up. 

The musical, based on the novel “My Love My Love” by Rosa Guy, which has book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, first opened in 1990 and received eight Tony nominations.  A London production garnered the 1995 Olivier Award for Best New Musical.   This newest version recently opened.
The encompassing and entrancing Caribbean-influenced music, played by traditional musical instruments, are supplemented by storm-dropped “found objects,” including trash bins, flexible piping and wooden boxes.

A young girl cries out in fear.  Story tellers, stirred on by the unrelenting winds and rain, tell her the tale of Ti Moune, a native girl in love with a young aristocrat, who is sent on a journey by the gods.  The story, like many oral history folk tales, uses the customs and mores of the area to paint a story of love and loss, faith and hope. 

The tale concerns the land, four gods: Asaka, the Mother of the Earth, Agwé, god of Water, Erzulie, the goddess of Love, and Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, and the people who worship them. 

The island is populated by peasants, the people as “black as night,” and the lighter-skinned descendants of the French planters and their slaves.  Each lives on their own side of the island, segregated from each other. 

As tradition tells, one day a terrible storm flooded the island, wiping out many people and dwellings. The gods place Ti Moune, an orphan girl, in a tree high above the flood’s waves, thus saving her.   She is found and adopted by Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian.  

Years pass, and the now grown-up beautiful Ti Moune, prays to the gods to set her on a path so he can find her purpose, establishing why she was saved from the storm.

Though they are amused by her wish, they arrange to have the car of Daniel, a light-skinned “grande homme” crash during a storm.  Ti Moune saves his life and restores him to health.  She falls in love with him and assumes he loves her as well.

Ti Moune follows Daniel when he returns to his side of the island. She finds out Daniel is engaged to Andrea, the daughter of family friends. 

Ti Moune is distraught, but when given the opportunity to kill him she will not do so, proving that love is stronger than hate. 

Erzulie takes Ti Moune to the ocean where she drowns peacefully and is taken to shore by Asaka who transforms her into a tree which eventually becomes a celebration of life and love.  As the tree grows, it cracks open the gates of the hotel, allowing those of all social statuses to become one.

And, as in all good folk tales, there is a happy ending as Daniel’s son, playing in the branches of the tree meets a peasant girl.  As the custom of separation of the groups has been eliminated, we are left to believe that love will conquer all.

As the musical ends, the frightened little girl from the beginning of the tale starts to retell the story herself, thus ensuring its continued significance in the history of her people.

The musical, under the direction of Michelle Arden, is enchanting.   Dane Laffrey’s setting, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting, Peter Ramos’s costumes, and Peter Hylenski’s sound all enhance the story development and the esthetic effect. 

The cast is outstanding.  Hailey Kilgore is award-worthy as Ti Moune.  She has an air of vitality that well fits the story and a lovely voice.  Her vocal, “Waiting for Life” is well interpreted.  Isaac Powell nicely develops the role of Daniel.

The gods, Asaka (Aurelia Williams), Agwé (Quentin Earl Darrington) , Erzulie (Lea Salonga), and Papa Ge (Rodrick Covington) all are convincing in their role interpretations.

“Once On This Island” will launch a North American tour in the fall off 2019.

Capsule judgment:  The enchanting “Once on This Island” is a tale well conceptualized and told sharing the power of love and tradition as it reveals that “our lives become the stories that we weave.”  

What: “Once on this Island The Musical”
Where:  Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th Street
When:  Open run