Josh Rittberg

Staff Writer

The classic musical, Once on This Island, written by the Tony-winning team of Ahrens and Flaherty, first opened on Broadway in 1991.   It was applauded for its unique Caribbean influenced score and the performance from Lachanze as Ti Moune.  Now, it’s back on The Great White Way under the truly inspired direction of Michael Arden. It is certainly a sight to behold.

Once on This Island tells the story of a young peasant girl named Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore) who desperately wants to see the other side of the island where the young and handsome Daniel (Isaac Powell) resides. Ti Moune’s adoptive parents, Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller), are concerned for Ti Moune’s safety in the wealthier side of the island, and do not want her to go.  Much to her parent’s dismay, she leaves her humble home and, with the help of the island gods, goes on a journey of self-exploration and hope. Although the plot may sound simple, it’s “show within a show” framing device creates an added sense of urgency that is felt throughout the entire production.

Hailey Kilgore is a revelation in her Broadway debut as Ti Moune. From the moment she makes her exciting entrance at the top of the show, Kilgore’s impressive vocals and expressive acting range has audiences in the palm of her hand. She shows incredible depth in her character and has a voice that is truly from the gods, especially in her show-stopping song “Waiting for Life”.  At the age of 18, Kilgore gracefully anchors this ensemble, while painting a developed portrait of a young girl who is lured and ultimately betrayed by love and her society. Although this is Hailey Kilgore’s Broadway debut, it will not be the last we will see of this incredible young talent.

Isaac Powell, another actor making his Broadway debut, plays Daniel, the young prince. Daniel begins the show as a bit arrogant but as he falls in love and connects with Ti Moune, he develops a great sense of responsibility and maturity. Watching Daniel’s satisfying arc is one of the many highlights of Powell’s performance. Powell shows stunning vulnerability in the song “Some Girls” as he sings affectionately of his new love for Ti Moune. He displays excellent chemistry with Kilgore and with Alysha Deslorieux, who plays his fiancé, Andrea. Powell’s winning performance vividly brings the character of Daniel to life.

Lea Salonga, Norm Lewis, Tamyra Gray and Alex Newell bring crowd-pleasing takes on the gods of love, water, death and the earth. Lea Salonga, a Broadway legend from the musical Miss Saigon, radiates warmth as Erzulie and brings a delicate grace to the song “The Human Heart”.

Norm Lewis, a Broadway legend in his own right, brings fierce vocals and a heroic power to Agwe.  His number “Rain” is astounding as Lewis shows off his outstanding range as an actor and vocalist.

Tamyra Gray manages to be simultaneously alluring and terrifying as Papa Ge. Gray’s haunting vocals elicit goosebumps while her arresting presence leaves audiences wanting more of this devilishly enjoyable god.

Alex Newell brings deft comedic timing and earth shattering vocals to the role of Asaka. This part was memorably played by Lillias White in the original Broadway production, and Alex Newell takes this incredible role and simply runs with it. His unforgettable number “Mama Will Provide” astounds and stuns as Newell parades around the stage delightfully hamming it up with the cast.  His energy is infectious, and he delivers this show stopper of a number with true confidence and flair.

Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller deliver touching and heartfelt performances as the loving Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie. Boykin instantly draws the audience in with his warmth and commanding presence. He is wonderfully playful with Mia Williamson, who plays young Ti Moune for a portion of the show.  Kenita R. Miller, as Mama Euralie, is heartbreakingly vulnerable as her character watches her daughter go off on a dangerous journey of self-exploration.

Both Boykin and Miller ground this magical fable and create characters that feel incredibly real and lived in. Their beautiful number “Ti Moune” is filled with raw emotion, and Miller stuns as she leads the heart achingly beautiful song “A Part of Us”.

The ensemble, along with Mia Williamson, who plays the Little Girl in the show’s Caribbean village, bring breathtaking spirit and a sense of community to the production. They dance Camille A. Brown’s rousing and raw choreography with much enthusiasm, and do thrilling work with Ahrens and Flaherty’s score.

Michael Arden’s direction for this revival is incredibly original and truly breathes fresh life into this already strong musical. By choosing to set this production in a storm torn village, the musical’s profound message on the power of storytelling is really brought to the forefront.  Arden tackles this musical fable with a homegrown sensibility that carries through in all of the design elements. For instance, Erzulie’s headpiece. as designed by Clint Ramos, is made of electrical cables and even some of the instruments used in the pit are from found objects.

This also extends to the transporting scenic design of Dane Laffrey where pieces of scrap metal and flashlights become a car. The atmospheric lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, along with all the other creative elements, help to support the production’s mission of making something special out of something broken.

With a supremely talented cast, innovative and breathtaking direction by Michael Arden and a rousing score by Ahrens and Flaherty, this is a theatrical experience that is thrillingly unlike anything on Broadway.  This musical is called Once on This Island, but audiences may soon find themselves wanting to return to this beautiful island that Arden and the cast have vividly created onstage at The Circle in the Square Theatre.