December 9, 2017

How I Got Stranded by "Once on This Island"

It's no fun being a party-pooper. But that's the role I find myself in when it comes to the revival of Once on This Island, the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flahaerty musical that opened this week at Circle in the Square to rave reviews.

Based on a 1985 novel by the Trinidadian-American writer Rosa Guy (you pronounce her last name like the word key), it's a fable set on a Haiti-like island that is uneasily shared by a small set of mulatto grand hommes, a larger group of dark-skinned peasants and the gods who play with all their fates.

The show's Romeo-and-Juliet plot derives from the romance that develops when the aristocratic Daniel has an accident and is rescued and nursed back to health by the peasant girl Ti Moune, who falls in love with him so deeply at first glance that she offers the god of death her soul in exchange for sparring Daniel's life.

It was a dubious premise back in 1990 when the show debuted at Playwrights Horizons and quickly moved to Broadway. But its Calypso-inflected score and a lovely performance by LaChanze won it a run of 469 performances and eight Tony nominations.

Today, nearly 30 years later, the idea of a poor dark-skinned woman sacrificing herself so that a wealthy light-skinned guy can live annoyed me so much that I sat there during the  entire 90-minute running time asking myself the words of a famous lyric from the show "why do we tell this story"?

Yeah, I get that it's supposed to be a testament to the unconditional love that we all want.  But how come the guy doesn't have to give up anything? Some people are calling this show an example of female empowerment but the idea of a woman dying for a man is empowering primarily to men. And yeah, I know it's just a story but is this really the message that we want to tell girls?

And things only got worse for me when the production indulged itself in another of my bugaboos: the rousing gospel aria delivered by a large black woman. As usual, the number brought down the house. But I sat there with my head in my hands, wondering "Why this again?"

I suppose the creative team thought it was breaking the stereotype by having a large black gender-fluid performer (Alex Newell of "Glee" fame) sing the song.  But wouldn't it be more radical to have a thin black woman (cis or trans) do it? Or even more radical still if a large black woman (cis or trans) were allowed to do something else?

I can't complain about the performances, which were all very good, lead by the newcomers Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune and Isaac Powell as Daniel and anchored by the stage vets Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller as Ti Moune's adopted parents. 

Tony-winner Lea Salonga gets special billing (and the prettiest costumes) for playing the god of love and she sings her solo sweetly but still comes across as the least memorable of the play's four deities (although to be fair it's hard to compete with Quentin Earl Darrington's commanding physique).

Meanwhile, director Michael Arden has worked hard to add contemporary flourishes to the new production. As he notes in the Playbill, he's drawn a sharp parallel between the climate disasters of recent years and the storms in the play. 

Much of the action takes place on a sand-filled environmental set that seems barely recovered from a previous calamity, with clothes strung out to dry around the theater and livestock (including a real goat) being rounded up.

Arden has also cast two of the gods against gender (Merle Dandridge plays the god of death) and paid tribute to the narrative traditions of the islands by nearly doubling the original cast with an ensemble of storytellers. 

It's also nice to see the young African-American choreographer Camille A. Brown getting a chance to show off what she can do on Broadway (click here to read an interview with her).

And lots of people seemed to be enchanted by all of it, including my sister and the two men in the first row who waved white handkerchiefs high in the air to signal their surrender to the show's charms. 

I wish Once on This Island had charmed me too. But although I'm a theater lover, I'm thinking that something like Wonder Woman's home island of Themyscira might be more my idea of a paradise for those of us seeking powerful female role models.

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