CD Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND (New Broadway Cast Recording)

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by Eve Meadows on March 5, 2018

in CD-DVD,Theater-New York


A lot of hoopla attended the 1990 Off-Broadway surprise of a small musical called Once on This Island. Loosely based on Rosa Guy’s Caribbean-flavored novel, My Love, My Love, which in turn is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, it was part of a late spring festival of new work at Playwrights Horizons. On the strength of its giddy reception there, it was moved to Broadway that fall, and I still remember that pleasant visit in 1991. Since then, the original cast album – packed with distinctive voices like André De Shields, LaChanze and Gerry McIntyre (all of whom are still trouping) — has become a fixture, one that can easily be played over and over.

Now, director Michael Arden has returned the show to Broadway, and it’s a boffo hit, re-imagined and re-orchestrated. For newbies to this musical, the new cast recording, the 100th release for Broadway Records, will be a revelation. But for musical aficionados, how does it compare to the original recording? — which, unlike so many Broadway shows, is still in print. I have good news.

This refreshingly small-scale 90-minute exercise in nonstop song and dance is a tribute to lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty’s score, a continuous medley of Caribbean/calypso/Broadway rhythms beautifully orchestrated by Michael Starobin, creatively co-orchestrated here with AnnMarie Milazzo and John Bertles, whose company Bash the Trash uses found instruments; along with the five-member orchestra, actors play “trashtraments” made from flexible plastic pipes, old bottles, and more.

It’s a unique sound with an intimate flavor that is just as valid as the bigger sound from the original (additional orchestrations by Haley Bennett and Javier Diaz). And very little has been changed in the content, so the running time of just over 70 minutes matches that of the 1990 recording. (It should be noted that as new Broadway shows have smaller orchestras, the volume of the instrumentalists increases; the bass here, recorded and mixed by Elliot Scheiner, can get too loud.)

A full-color 30-page booklet with photos and lyrics accompanies the CD, so it’s easy to follow along. This is a classic but simple story of star-crossed love and unbridgeable class distinctions. Taking place in the French Antilles, the tale of a peasant girl named Ti Moune, who nurses the son of the island’s most affluent family back to health after he’s crashed his car into a tree — and falls in love with him. (Ti Moune is played as an adult by Hailey Kilgore, exciting on her solo “Waiting for Life”; as a child by Emerson Davis and Mia Williamson on this recording.)

The son, Daniel (Isaac Powell, lovely on “Some Girls”), has been betrothed since childhood to Andrea (Alysha Deslorieux), a woman of his own class. And although Daniel falls for Ti Moune as intensely as she does for him, he is ready to obey his father and marry Andrea to whom he is also strongly attracted. The tormented Ti Moune, who had offered up her life for Daniel’s to the God of Death, Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge), is given one chance to take it back — by killing her faithless lover. Unable to do that, she is turned into a tree, which grows into a unifying emblem of the once-divided island.


Highlights include: “One Small Girl,” when the young Ti Moune is found alive after a devastating storm and is adopted by Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and her husband Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin); “Forever Yours,” during which the three-way compact is made among Ti Moune, Daniel and Death; and “Ti Moune,” a tender song of separation during which her parents ruefully agree to let her go and find her love — it truly touches the heart.

In this all-color, gender-fluid cast are two brave casting choices: Dandridge now plays a role normally given to a man; while her Papa Ge isn’t very bold in the singing department, she is very threatening in her acting. Out gay actor Alex Newell plays Asaka, Mother of the Earth, and his “Mama Will Provide” his a rouser. (Another god, Erzulie, Goddess of Love, is still a woman — and the great Lea Salonga offers a stunningly beautiful and controlled “The Human Heart.”)

As long as we’re in the French Antilles, the word pétillant comes to mind to describe the energy and spirit of the piece. And as long as we’re dipping into a wine vocabulary, the new recording of Once on This Island will be a 1961 Chateau Latour to some, a sprightly Beaujolais Nouveau to others. You can’t lose.

photos of the Broadway production by Joan Marcus

Once on This Island
New Broadway Cast Recording
Broadway Records
1 disc | 19 tracks | 70:13
released on February 23, 2018
available at Broadway Records and Amazon

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