You’re having dinner at someone’s house and are fed one utterly delicious dish after another.
Eventually you’re so full and satisfied that when your host brings out yet another delectable goodie you must put up your hands and say “No-no-no! Thank you, thank you, thank you — but I just can’t eat another thing!”
What you’re about to read may sound as if it’s a left-handed compliment, but that’s not how I mean it.
That’s the way I felt on May 4, 1990 when I saw ONCE ON THIS ISLAND during its world premiere off-Broadway engagement.
The songs by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens were so glorious — one masterpiece following another — that by the time we got to “The Human Heart,” the 13th song, I felt my own human heart and brain just could not – strange as this may sound — take another Great Song until I took a breather.
Well, I wouldn’t get one, for ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is an intermissionless show. But I did get a half-dozen more amazing songs that resulted in one of the Great Broadway Debut Scores of All Time.
When I reviewed it way-back-then, I called the show “a musical fit for the gods” – partly because gods play a large part in it. Since then, I’ve seen the musical five times and was thrilled to learn that I’d see it a sixth by way of a new revival at Circle in the Square. That it was directed by Michael Arden, who’d greatly improved SPRING AWAKENING, made me count the days to ONCE ON THIS ISLAND as a child does with Christmas.
You’ve guessed, haven’t you, that I was disappointed.
First the plot: Tonton and Euralie, two peasants in the French Antilles, discover a baby who’d nearly drowned. They name it Ti Moune – “little orphan” — and take it to their modest home.
“Modest,” however, cannot be used to describe Ti Moune’s goals once she’s a teen. As soon as she sees Daniel Beauxhomme driving in his late-model car, he and it are all she wants.
So Ti Moune sings that she’s “Waiting for Life to Begin,” one of those oh-so-rare wonderful songs where, by the end of the number, you’re 100% in love with the lass and desperately hope that she gets what she wants.
And here come this new revival’s first two missteps.
Ti Moune, as portrayed by Hailey Kilgore and directed by Arden, comes across as much too contemptuous of her parents. Throughout the show she’ll continue to dish out utter scorn instead of the respect that children in that part of the world – especially in a time described in the program as “then” – routinely gave their mothers and fathers. To paraphrase what Golde says to her children in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF just before they left Anatevka, “You’re not in America” – where many kids treat their parents as morons.
Kilgore starts her Playbill bio with the word “Humbled” to say how she feels to be doing the role. Well, she indeed may be humble, but her Ti Moune certainly isn’t.
Second problem: Kilgore ends that phenomenal opening song with a very contemporary-sounding melisma (“be-gi-i-i-i-i-i-in”) that says “Aren’t you in awe with what I can do with my voice?” Ms. Kilgore, remember that Ti Moune is a native girl from the French Antilles, and this approach to the song is very AMERICAN IDOL.
Alex Newell, entrusted to play Goddess Asaka and sing the magnificent “Mama Will Provide,” makes the same error. Newell’s doing it as an African-American Big Mama, not as a native Antillean.
Well, as that old TV show used to insist, FATHER KNOWS BEST — and as it turns out, Mother does, too. For after Ti Moune rescues the high-born Daniel from near-death after his car accident, she nurses him to health and falls in love with him — as he does with her. Tonton and Euralie know that their love can never be, because the privileged and the peasants never mix.
There’s another aspect of the musical that Arden soft-pedals: Ti Moune is supposed to be very brown in complexion while Daniel is a light-skinned black. Kilgore isn’t that dark and if Daniel (the okay Isaac Powell) isn’t white, he could pass better than Peola does in IMITATION OF LIFE.
Circle in the Square Theatre is actually Oval in the Rectangle Theatre — and the wrong location for this show. In-the-round staging often frustrates, but never more than in the scene where Daniel shows who he is (or, perhaps, who he feels he must be). If you’re not on the theater’s 50-yard-line, you may miss this extraordinarily important moment.
Totally successful are Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller at Tonton and Euralie. When they find the baby, she’s a step ahead of her spouse in what they’ll do and gives him a you-stupid-idiot glare that many a husband has seen from his wife. Boykin does show, however, that he has a kind demeanor that we’d like to see in all our parents.
Miller captures other little details. The way she constantly has her hand on her hip lets us see that she’s been having trouble with it for quite some time. When Ti Moune asks her to divulge her history, Miller gives her husband a backhanded but not malicious slap to his chest that says “You explain!” Best of all, Boykin and Miller convincing age as the years pass and Ti Moune segues into adulthood.
Merle Dandridge’s God Papa Ge growls with a voice worthy of a possessed Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST. Lea Salonga as Goddess Erzulie – wearing a silver version of those green foam Statue of Liberty crowns that some tourists wear through Times Square – is confident in teaching that time-honored warning to “Be careful what you wish for.”
That does bring up one of the two troubling aspects of the musical. It suggests that the gods in which the peasants place their faith DO have something against them and actually want to maintain the unfair status quo. And the way that the gods have Ti Moune “get over” Daniel isn’t a satisfying solution, either.
But much of the book is extraordinarily solid and once again: that score! What’s more, Michael Starobin’s excellent orchestrations have been augmented by three other music men who have used percussive instruments that one would actually hear in the French Antilles.
If only the rest of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND were as authentic.