Review: Once On This Island

Just a few blocks north of the heart of Times Square and next door to the massive Gershwin Theatre (capacity: 1,900) is a more intimate space, an 800-seat theater built for unique productions that immerse their audiences into the world created on stage eight times a week. The aptly named Circle in the Square Theatre presents shows that make the most of the space’s thrust stage, with seating surrounding three of the four sides. I’ve seen a couple shows there, including the magnificent (and Tony Award-winning) revival of Oklahoma! headed on tour this fall, where they serve homemade chili on stage during intermission.

Before Oklahoma!, Circle on the Square was host to another musical revival, Once on the Island, a show that covered the stage in sand and even populated the ensemble with goats and chickens all in an effort to transport its audiences to the French Caribbean islands where it takes place. Originally staged in 1990 (book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty), the 2017 revival (directed by Michael Arden) was well-received and even went on to win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. With that success behind it, the show has taken to touring; through February 2, the island musical, a fable about a young peasant girl convinced she can make a “grand homme” love her, is on nightly at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, a traditional proscenium venue with a capacity (2,300) that dwarfs the Gershwin, let alone Circle in the Square.

All that’s to say that this touring production of Once On This Island, transmuted as it is from its original thrust staging, loses what one imagines was a bit of the magic in the staging back on Broadway (it’s also lost the goats and chickens). There’s an effort to keep the engagement high, to maintain some sense of the connection between performers and audience, but the insertion of a couple dozen spectators on stage for the one-act musical feels forced at best, distracting at worst. The rest of the set design (the show takes place essentially in present day) is as (intentionally) unremarkable as it is versatile. A rowboat, a couple of wrought iron gates, corrugated tin roofing and more are all whisked this way and that throughout the show by an ensemble that keeps the scenes moving right along with the brisk, energetic music.

Once On This Island centers around Ti Moune (Courtnee Carter), a peasant girl orphaned by a storm and raised in a small village by Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Danielle Lee Greaves), a couple old enough to be her grandparents who believe it is the gods of earth, water, beauty and death that govern their lives and their fates. When a “grand homme,” a light-skinned resident of the wealthy part of the island, crashes his fancy car in the village, Ti Moune—who’s grown up unsure of why she was spared by the gods during that storm—believes she’s found her calling and insists on nursing the young man back to health. When his own family finally spirits him back to their side of the island (and behind the tall gates that keep the haves from the have nots), Ti Moune insists on going after him, to find him, fall in love and…well, it is a fable after all.

But the show understands the weight of its own context, unafraid to dig deeper than its predictable love story into the history of native islanders and their French colonizers, the deep-seeded conflict between dark- and light-skinned residents, and even the clash between faith in the gods and faith in oneself. And even if the action on stage feels at an arm’s length (even in the orchestra seats), a committed cast delivers the show’s eclectic numbers, from the thrilling to the poignant, beautifully. And there’s still plenty of wonder to the proceedings, too; watch, in particular, for the nearly seamless evolution of the four gods (Erzulie (Beauty), played by Cassondra James; Asaka (Earth), played by Kyle Ramar Freeman; Papa Ge (Death), played by Tamyra Gray; and Agwe (Water), played by Jahmaul Bakare) from average islanders into their deified selves and back again.

Presenting Once On This Island in a venue so different from where it was initially imagined doesn’t happen without falling a bit short; like translating lyrical French poetry into choppy, clunky English, something gets lost along the way. But if the alternative is that a show this beautiful never finds its way to our doorstep at all, then it’s a small price to pay for the privilege.