|Alex Newell and Hailey Kilgore, photo @ Joan Marcus|
The revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Once On This Island has been getting insanely good word-of-mouth in early previews. I went to see what the fuss was all about last night. First of all, Circle in the Square is exactly the right theatre for this show. The boxed-in seating allowed director Michael Arden to make the entire set an "island." The pre-show involved the cast milling about a sand-and-water-filled set complete with goats and chickens. The ceiling of the theater had bunches of laundry lines. They obviously were trying to recreate the feel of a real Caribbean island. A little cheesy, but it worked.
|The island set|
Actually the whole cast is strong. The ageless Lea Salonga is still beautiful in both voice and face as Erzulie, one of the island goddesses. Merle Dandridge is terrifying as Papa Ge, God of Death. Kenita R. Miller got huge applause as Ti Moune's adopted mother. Alex Newell's "Mama Will Provide" was a big hit with the audience. The story is framed by a little girl named Emerson Davis who was adorable. And Isaac Powell is believable as the kind of callow playboy who nonetheless harbors real feelings towards Ti Moune. The final farewell of Ti Moune and Daniel was heartbreaking.
|Cast of OOTI, photo @ Joan Marcus|
But, but, but. If this show had limited itself to being a wistful fable of love found and lost again, the charming, colorful score might have been enough. However, the story actually takes an extremely tragic, bleak turn at the end. And Flaherty's score simply does not have the depth to convey the tragedy that is built into the musical's book. I mean, think of the opera Rusalka (which has an almost identical storyline). Rusalka has lasting power because Dvorak's score always underlines the tragedy of the story. If a musical wants to break our heart, the music has to do the major legwork. Think Carousel. West Side Story. Or, in more recent times, Dear Evan Hansen and Fun Home. In Dear Evan Hansen songs like "Waving Through a Window," "For Forever," and "Words Fail" made the audience feel Evan's pain and loneliness. Fun Home ended with the heartwrenching "I'll Fly Away" with all three Alisons singing to Bruce Bechdel. People around me were sobbing. Flaherty's score is wonderful in conveying Caribbean local flavor, it has enough melancholy to carry the love story, but when it comes to the heartbreak and tragedy that make up the last third of the show, the music simply does not take us there. "A Part of Us" and "Why We Tell the Story" seem like weak attempts to finish the show.
Would I recommend Once On This Island? Absolutely. It's a fun theatrical experience. But the musical I think was intended to be more than "fun." It was intended to be a heartbreaker. And Flaherty's score didn't break my heart.
What did break my heart was that last night when I came home from Once On This Island a friend of mine told me that things were looking very grave for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Russian baritone who has been battling brain cancer for over two years. I went to bed saddened. When I woke up I saw that he had passed away overnight. He was only 55. I last saw him in an emotional performance of Il Trovatore in September 2017. The ovation at his entry was so loud the orchestra had to stop completely. He gave us a beautifully sung Count di Luna. At the end of the evening the Met orchestra threw roses at him and his colleagues were standing back and crying openly. I never saw him perform again. I guess God wanted to listen to his voice. RIP to this magnificent singer and artist.