These days, when you enter the Circle-in-the-Square theatre, you’re transported to a delightful Caribbean island. Residents with adorable accents joke with each other and joke with you, all the while handling a live goat, a live chicken, and a sizable shin-deep pool of water. It’s captivating and unexpected. This is Broadway, where we’re accustomed to a stodgy proscenium; instead, this is theatre-in-the-oval, and we’re all part of the show.
Eventually, house lights go down, music begins, and the cast sings and dances a story, directed at a little girl, but also directed at us. The only complexity is that we meet four Gods who use earth’s humans like chess-pieces. That means that we don’t quite grasp mortal actions having consequences: If Gods are playing with us all, we’re not in control of our fates.
Originally produced in 1990, Once On This Island marked the Broadway debut of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and it was very exciting to see a new team burst on the scene with such a high level of craft, such an understanding of how musical forms we’re used to in pop music can be used to further a narrative. So, of course, Flaherty is going to serve up a lot of reggae, but he’s always conscious of differentiating characters and having the songs all sound different. (One motif, on the first four notes of the scale, resurfaces) Some years later, in an admirably ambitious show called Ragtime, he did the same with a variety of rags. But here, on this island, the West Indies sounds become a kind of comfort food, always feeling right.
Flaherty and Ahrens went through the BMI workshop a couple of years after me, and it often strikes me that they’re the very models of the principles Lehman Engel imparted. Every phrase in every lyric is perfectly apt, utilizing exactly the vocabulary the character naturally uses. Each song moves you from one emotional place to another. A lot of the show is funny, but a great deal of the show is deeply moving.
Ti Moune and Daniel are star-crossed lovers. They meet by accident, literally, and it takes a great deal of bravery and industry for Ti Moune to go and meet Daniel again. An obvious antecedent is The Little Mermaid. Ariel saves Eric from a wreck but has to go through a hell of a lot to get to spend more time with him in his castle. Based on a novel by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island scrupulously keeps its heroine active. She is younger and far braver than those Wicked witches who occupy the same building several stories above.
On this island, the Montagues and Capulets aren’t equals. Ti Moune is a foundling from the dark-skinned peasant community. Daniel is lighter-skinned because he descends from a French colonist. This production, in a rare misstep, portrays the white forefather as a black shadow silhouette, and I know my daughter missed out on the important pigment-based prejudice aspect of the story.
Most of the time, though, director Michael Arden creates stunning stage pictures against a background that is made up of mostly white audience members. That’s a hard trick to pull off, but things fall from the ceiling or rise from the ground, and there’s energetic tale-telling in the choreography of Camille A. Brown. The show zips along from one great song to another (there’s almost no dialogue) and there are fully-committed performances from a beautiful cast.
Two problems of theatre-in-the-round, though, are not quite licked. One is that actors can’t constantly twirl. There will be times when you’ll be looking at the back of the head of a player who’s registering emotion on their face and you’ll miss it. In my review of the Jesus Christ Superstar telecast, I talked about how loud rock music literally rocks the floorboards, bursting into your ears as sounds bounce off the walls of the theatre. That can’t happen here because the walls are way behind all the seats. We hear sans bounce, and it’s a rare Broadway show when I think certain songs aren’t loud enough. Call it the damage of being inside a bowl (as in stadium); soundman won’t provide.
Honestly, though, my excitement about this production is mostly connected to how Once On This Island is written. Its most famous number is the paragon of I Want songs, Waiting For Life To Begin.
I’m here in the field
With my feet on the ground
And my fate in the air
Ahrens makes nifty use of consonance there, propelling the line forward. And, by song’s end, we love Ti Moune, here personified by young Hailey Kilgore, because she (rather than Ahrens) uses fun ways of speaking like that.
Flaherty is the vamp-master of his generation. The one that begins Forever Yours sits on two notes, but the harmonies underneath make the danger of this romantic expression palpable. And, just when you think you’re hearing a conventional love song, the God of Death bursts onto the stage making the whole thing suddenly evil. Tamyra Gray, in a role previously cast with a male actor, gave my favorite performance in the piece.
Long before I encountered Once On This Island, I heard admiring whispers about a solo waltz. When I heard Some Girls, I thought they should have been admiring shouts.
Some girls take pleasure
In buying a fine trousseau
Counting each treasure
And tying each tiny bow
They hold their futures with perfumed hands
While you face the future with no demands
This is top-notch songwriting: We invest in this love story, our hearts fill with hope for the couple. The charm of these numbers is manipulative in the best possible sense. The audience goes through powerful emotions over a brisk ninety minutes.
Which reminds me of the nineteen-nineties, and how, of all the shows to premiere on Broadway, none moved me more than Once On This Island.