By Kamila Daurenova, Contributing Writer
The first-ever revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s “Once on This Island” feels like a 90-minute escape to the Caribbean. As the the Circle in the Square’s title suggests, the audience is seated in a circle surrounding the sand-covered stage; complete with a hut and body of water at the side.
We listen in as the storytellers of a village comfort a frightened little girl during a storm in the Antilles archipelago with the tale of Ti Moune, a peasant girl that fell in love with the young aristocrat Daniel. A tropical “Romeo and Juliet” meets “The Little Mermaid,” the exuberant show riffs on the timeless theme of the unifying power of love against the structures of class and race.
Raised on the other side of the island from her star-crossed lover, Ti Moune is found marooned in a tree and is adopted by the peasants Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian. Kenita R. Miller and Phillip Boykin deliver stirring performances rooted in parental concern, their superior vocals grounding the heart-breaking “Ti Moune” and “A Part of Us.”
With a Broadway show on her shoulders at age 18, Hailey Kilgore makes a coloratura debut as the spirited lead. Her crystal-clear voice seems to carry every colour of the vibrant show as the inhabitants of the village sing along with her in in “Waiting for Life.” Isaac Cole Powell also makes his Broadway Debut as love interest Daniel, a handsome yet initially arrogant young man whose satisfying character arc leads to a greater understanding of compassion and responsibility. Powell succeeds in the uneasy task of matching the unbounded energy of Kilgore, whose shining moment comes in “Ti Moune’s Dance”. She deliver’s Camille A. Brown’s rousing choreography with incredible grace and vigour, a red ball gown from costume designer Clint Ramos accentuating every move.
While the two leads are relative newcomers, the four gods of the island are anything but that. Tony-winner and Broadway legend Lea Salonga plays Erzulie, the goddess of love, who starts off dressed in a white uniform to pay tribute to Filipino nurses. The warmth of her beloved voice is exactly what is needed for the tender ballad “The Human Heart”. Making his Broadway Debut after playing transgender student Unique on “Glee”, Alex Newel gives a show stopping performance with the infectious “Mama Will Provide”.
While the lyrical ending hits hard, Ti Moune’s final sacrifice feels like a turn to the generic after the previous innovation and unpredictability of the show. Having followed a character that radiates such exuberance and strength, it is hard not to hope for subversion to the classic tale of feminine martyrdom. Nonetheless, the execution is perfect under the direction of Michael Arden and assistant direction from NYU graduate Nikki M. James, leading to an enthusiastic standing ovation from the fully immersed audience.