With Once on this Island, director Michael Arden has created a spell-binding revival which pushes the boundaries for what is usually done on Broadway. It’s colourful, vibrant and demonstrates the uplifting power of story-telling.
Our story is set in the Caribbean and follows Timoune, a young peasant girl who falls in love with a rich boy from a place, worlds apart from hers. With courage, bravery and also help from the Island’s gods, she challenges all odds to try and be with the man she loves.
Stories are designed to take our imaginations on exciting and mysterious journeys and that’s what you get with this production. As soon as you enter the Circle in the Square Theatre which is in the round, you are transported to an island: there’s sand; a pool of water; an upturned boat and even a goat on stage. The show is not only visually impressive, but seeks to engage all the senses; at times you can feel a cool wind breeze through the audience and even rain downpours on stage.
The actors completely commit to being our story tellers, often dressing into their costumes before our eyes. They confidently know how to use the space and engage the audience and it was thrilling to be a part of. The chemistry between the cast was also effervescent. The standout actor for me was Alex Newell (Glee) who stars as Asaka – Mother of the Earth, in a gender swapped role. Alex brings a burst of life and energy to the show and has great comedic timing. Our central character Timoune is sweetly played by Hailey Kilgore who is small yet mighty with impressive vocal chops.
The Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty score gives the show its vibrant personality. The ensemble numbers such as ‘We Dance’, ‘Mama Will Provide and ‘Some Say” just oozes with joy and has these infectious rhythms that you can’t help but dance along to. These songs contrast with the softer ones such as ‘Human Heart’ and ‘A Part of Us’ which really do pull on your heart strings.
The original low-budget production of Once on this Island staged in 1990 ran for just over a year. It has since been done in many school and regional productions, I even starred in my local drama theatre’s production eight years ago now. But despite knowing the show very well on the page, I was constantly surprised by how fresh and new this production felt. Director, Michael Arden, bucks the trend of relying too much on technical and complicated set pieces and rather displays creative resourcefulness. There’s shadow puppetry, impressive physical acting and inventive uses of basic set pieces which accumulatively injects new life into the show.
Ultimately, this show captures what a revival is meant to do by taking a story which has been done before but telling it in a new and refreshing way. It takes you for a ride and you’ll leave the theatre on a high.