It was cold, gray and rainy on the afternoon we went to see the revival of Once On This Island. It was our fourth show in three days, and it had been a doozy of a weekend. The three shows we had seen up to this point were all a theater-lover's dream, and, frankly, I worried that maybe we were too tired to fully enjoy this last show, or that somehow, after such great luck with those other shows, this last one would disappoint. Well, I was no more than three steps into this unique space, and all my worries were gone in an instant.
This island - "a jewel of the Antilles" - slowly comes to life as its citizens arrive to begin clean up. Relief workers are there too, offering medical assistance and a helping hand. We are part of the action as well when the inhabitants see us, greet us and offer a smile and a corny joke or two. Watching them work with such positivism is the first of many reminders throughout the next hour and a half of the inherent goodness of people. Next thing you know, the show starts and the outside world completely melts away.
|Isaac Powell and Hailey Kilgore as Daniel and Ti Moune|
|Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian|
|Kenita R. Miller as Mama Euralie|
Overseeing both the story and the space itself are the quartet of gods, rulers of earth, water, love and death, a double yin and yang, if you will. And these four are simply astonishing. As Asaka, goddess of the earth, Alex Newell, possessor of a glorious set of pipes and an astonishing presence, does as much with a wink and a smile as he does with the twirl of his tablecloth skirt (ingenious "recycled trash" costumes by Clint Ramos). At times larger than life (his "Mama Will Provide" is a showstopper of legendary proportions), Newell also, and more impressively, knows when nuance and grace are the smarter acting choice. The conscious gender-bending of this role fits the actor and show like a glove. Similarly, the role of death demon Papa Ge has been assigned to a female, played with a scary urgency by the fierce whirlwind that is Tamyra Gray. I think she was born to play this role, her modulation of tone and emotion is so expertly applied. The confidence she exudes is matched with her command of the stage. Whenever she stalks the stage, your eyes go to her - most fitting for the specter of Death. Her voice is never in question - she's an American Idol finalist, after all - but her acting is just as strong.
|Norm Lewis (Agwe), Lea Salonga (Erzulie), Alex Newell (Asaka), |
Hailey Kilgore (Ti Moune) and Tamyra Gray (Papa Ge)
Then there is the fatherly presence of veteran Norm Lewis as water god, Agwe. A captivating mix of warmth and playful power, Lewis sings the hell out of "Rain." The role suits him perfectly, and one wishes he had even more to do. That said, he makes the most of every moment he has. Finally, there is the quiet elegance of the thoroughly captivating Lea Salonga. That is not to say she's any less fierce or compelling than her three cohorts. No, pro that she is, she picks her moments carefully, and doesn't disappoint her fans. When she sings "The Human Heart," there is no mistaking that you are in the presence of a true Broadway legend.
The stunning whole of this production is a really emotional ride, one that I hope to take again, it is that good. Once on this Island is definitely not enough. It's one of those total theater-going experiences that leaves you better for having seen it.
(Photos by J. Kyler and J. Marcus)