From sand and water, from fire and wind, Michael Arden and his cast and designers have brought the story of Ti Moune to life once again. Set in Haiti immediately after a devastating storm, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s 1990 musical Once on This Island is revived in all its jubilant splendor from an unlikely assortment of detritus. The set and costumes are fashioned from trash and the elements, and, as the tale progresses, the Storytellers literally dig up the past from the ground. It’s a rustic, homespun concept that Arden and his set designer Dane Laffrey extend all around Circle in the Square. If Ahrens and Flaherty’s writing shows a few creaks, they are mostly obscured by the inventiveness of this production.
Once on This Island concerns Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), a peasant girl nearly drowned in a storm and rescued by some kind villagers who pass by the place she has washed up. Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) adopt her as their own until Ti Moune encounters Daniel (Isaac Powell), a boy from across the racial and class divide, who has been severely injured in a car accident. The gods have shown Ti Moune that this is the man she is meant to love and she trades her life to Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge), the god of death, in exchange for Daniel’s.
Ahrens frames the story of Ti Moune as a fable told by the residents of this island for many years. Following a storm that is most likely 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, the Storytellers set out to recount Ti Moune’s sacrifice in order to distract a small girl who finds herself frightened by the storm. This idea of oral history, passed down from generation to generation, is threaded throughout Once on This Island and is lost in today’s culture of Google and Wikipedia. We do not need to remember things or verbally tell our stories, but it is vital, in the Haitian culture depicted, to keep the story of Ti Moune alive.
Arden’s revival of Spring Awakening in 2015 proved that he is a formidable director. He has only solidified that with Once on This Island. Different in style and tone, this production proves he is a versatile craftsman of staging, shaping images that are compositionally striking, but also illuminate character and relationships and could convey the point of a scene without text. In the small stage of Circle in the Square, Arden dots the sand with many actors, but it’s never unclear who is the focus of each moment, be it Ti Moune or a secondary or tertiary character. His attachment to the material is apparent; the text and music are treated with a loving fidelity that then extends to each member of the tight, cohesive ensemble. These people feel as if they have lived together for generations.
Camille A. Brown’s choreography rumbles up from the ground and shines down from the sun simultaneously. The bodies roll with the rhythm, reach with arms extended their full length, and stomp down into the stand. It’s thrilling–no more so than in Ti Moune’s climactic dance at Daniel’s home in which it becomes clear they cannot be together.
Laffrey’s design creates a playground in the devastation, for both Arden and the Storytellers. The end of a large shipping container sits crashed at one end of the in-the-round stage, facing the mouth of a river (there’s actual water). An abandoned canoe becomes a platform and a bed. Some of the score’s percussion is sounded by a water bottle repurposed as a maraca and other objects turned into musical instruments in keeping with the scenography.
Cast standouts include Merle Dandridge, Kenita R. Miller, Isaac Powell, and Hailey Kilgore. Arden puts Dandridge in what is typically a male role, and she is terrifying and tempting and sings with a bone-chilling fierceness. Miller is warm and sly and powerful – her love for Ti Moune is enveloping. Powell, a recent college graduate, is magnetic, exuding a confident in his movement and his singing that is uncommon in someone his age. Kilgore, as Ti Moune, is a luminous talent with a clear, strong voice and an empathetic, open reading of the role.
If anything, my quibbles are small. “Mama Will Provide” is a song that has jumped from Once on This Island from its very beginning as a show-stopping crowd-pleaser. This baggage as one of the show’s “hits” is exploited in the production to its detriment. When the song begins, Alex Newell, as Asaka, comes blasting in vocally at full force, already playing with and adjusting the melody instead of letting the song build naturally and then making alternate choices. The lyrics are obscured to the point of being unintelligible and Newell sings over the song instead of letting his voice float within it.
The production also moves too quickly through the scenes where Ti Moune discovers that Papa Ge will eventually collect on the bargain they made. As Ti Moune submits to her fate, the turnaround to the uplifting final number, “Why We Tell the Story,” is all too quick. The production does not let the impact of Ti Moune’s death have the space that it needs for its full appreciation.
Once on This Island is written by a white man and woman and directed by a white man, but the multi-ethnic cast reclaims the story as their own. Ahrens’ text is sensitive to her own outside position as a white woman looking in and Arden and Laffrey did extensive research in Port-au-Prince to ensure that the milieu is as truthful as possible. In the end, the story belongs to the Storytellers, and it’s a joyous, love-filled expression of the history of this fictional village and their willingness to persevere.