The islands of the French Antilles were among the areas that suffered severe damage recently from Hurricane Maria. But to judge by the energetic revival of the musical Once on This Island now going on at Circle in the Square, there’s no need to worry about these islanders’ resilience. First seen at Playwrights Horizons in May 1990, and originally transferred to Broadway later that year, Once on This Island is a tuneful tribute to the Antillean residents’ adaptive ability and will to survive, its spirit well captured in Michael Arden’s cheerfully flamboyant production. Crowds of villagers, along with a goat and some caged chickens, throng the Circle’s eccentrically shaped, quasi-rhomboidal stage, dashing up and down its aisles, while the main platform itself sprouts bubbling springs, hillocks, trees, walls, furniture, and chandeliers as needed.
The incessant materializing, like the extreme gestural flamboyance, makes sense, for this is a materialistic fairy tale, in which love and magic overcome class stratification (though it takes them a few generations), and a human being has to die for love and be transformed into a tree before it can happen. This fusion of socialist realism and magic realism is also happily pagan: In Lynn Ahrens’s script, based on a novel by the Trinidad-born Rosa Guy, the island gods of Earth, Water, Love, and Death play key roles side by side with the humans. Of the many musicals Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty have written together, this one shows her skills at their best; she treats the folk material with a combination of simple straightforwardness and sophisticated awareness that elegantly avoids any hint of condescension. The miraculous tall-tale events, when they occur, are presented without italicizing; the reminders that this is a fable, and so not subject to reality checks, are pasted in with a smiling shrug rather than an exaggerated wink. Flaherty’s score, which basically infuses a set of catchy Broadway tunes with the roll and bounce of Caribbean rhythms, makes a sort of musical mesh hammock in which the story swings with appealing ease.
The story needs that ease. It starts with the miraculous rescue of Ti Moune (Halley Kilgore), orphaned when her parents are among those swept out to sea by a hurricane. Adopted by aging foster parents, Ti Moune grows up a dreamer. When Daniel (Isaac Powell), a young man from one of the wealthy families (les grand’hommes) that rule the island, smashes up his expensive sports car near her village, Ti Moune, falling instantly in love, rescues him from the wreckage and insists on nursing him back to health, over her adoptive parents’ protests. When Daniel’s family learns of his condition and removes him to the more luxurious comforts of home, Ti Moune insists on following. The piece tracks her arduous journey to the other side of the island and the persistence that gains her admission to Daniel’s sickroom and helps her nurse him back to health. From there the story takes enough twists for me to say that giving away the ending would take up too much space. Suffice it to say that the ending is tragic but joyful, and satisfactory.
Arden has assembled an extremely satisfactory cast, too. The 1990 Broadway production, by director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, was simple and sparse. Arden uses far more elaborate effects — a shadow play, elaborate scenery (by Dane Laffrey), a storytelling chorus in seemingly constant motion (impressively choreographed by Camille A. Brown) — but he also achieves acting that in general is considerably sharper and stronger than the original’s. Along with Powell, who gives the rich-boy hero a nice haughty edge, Kenita R. Miller and Phillip Boykin, as Ti Moune’s foster parents, and Merle Dandridge, as a god of death seemingly inspired by Charles Addams’s Morticia, etch particularly vivid impressions. But the original also offered two matchless performances, and I mean no dispraise of the two excellent actors here when I say that Alex Newell’s delightful cavortings as the earth goddess Asaka come nowhere near the almost casual way in which Kecia Lewis-Evans blew the roof off the theater with Asaka’s big song, “Mama Will Provide.” And while Kilgore makes a fetching Ti Moune, nothing, absolutely nothing, beats the sweetness that LaChanze projected in this central role, while going through every emotion from childlike wonder to a lion’s fierce determination and the pain of helpless disappointment. But the current Once on This Island is a treat in itself, and remembering the great moments its predecessor provided should not be taken as a cue to run it down. The show’s whole moral is that we should live for today, and not let our feeling for the past drag us backward. Especially not when, as in the case of this revival, the present is doing very well indeed.