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Review: Once On This Island on Broadway

local culture


Fordham University


Review: Once On This Island on Broadway

A vivacious and life-affirming musical has blazed back onto Broadway.

Christian Eble


Read time: 7 minutes

Rating: 5/5

Once On This Island, directed by the bold and brilliant Michael Arden (Spring Awakening), has been revived in every sense of the word.

According to their website, the musical follows the story of Ti Moune (Broadway newcomer Hailey Kilgore), “a fearless peasant girl who falls in love with a wealthy boy from the other side of the island. When their divided cultures keep them apart, Ti Moune is guided by the powerful island Gods, Erzulie (Tony winner Lea Salonga), Asaka (Alex Newell, of “Glee” fame), Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), and Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge) on a remarkable quest to reunite with the man who has captured her heart. This production transforms the reality of a tropical village devastated by a storm into a fantastical world alive with hope.”
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (the Tony Award winning team behind Seussical, Ragtime, and Anastasia) wrote the music, lyrics, and book. This dynamic duo teamed up with Arden, as well as orchestrator Michael Starobin and vocal designer Ann Marie Milazzo, reconstructing the entire score to be played by instruments made out of found objects and garbage.

Why garbage, you ask? Well, this revival takes place on an island that has just been ravaged by natural disaster (eerily mirroring several states and countries in our contemporary world). During the pre-show, islanders wander about the stage assessing damage, helping others, and maneuvering around live animals (come for the show, stay for the live chickens and goats) as they make sense of the devastation. Much of the show's aesthetic revolves around garbage and found objects, so garbage instruments seem like a no-brainer, right?

In an interview, Flaherty said, “We started toying with the idea of, ‘What if this was not a traditional pit orchestra? What if it was whatever you had on hand to make theatre?’ We are going for a more acoustic feel and stretching the boundary to ask, ‘What is an instrument. How can you make music?’”

Once the general idea for the show was in place, the team moved on to casting. After an international open casting call and nationwide search, Arden and the show’s producers cast 18-year-old Oregon native Hailey Kilgore in the central role of Ti Moune. This marks Kilgore’s Broadway debut, and she’s absolutely sensational in her breakout role.

What's also different about Once On This Island this time around is the way that the Gods were cast. “In casting the Gods that inhabit our island, it became imperative for me to break expectations and stretch beyond the bounds in which Gods are traditionally represented. It felt important that young people watching our production see themselves reflected back from the stage at them,” said Michael Arden in an interview. “The Gods are simply that: Gods. They are not bound by gender, race, sexuality or being human at all. I'm so very pleased to be collaborating with these four artists exploring the important and timely themes of this musical through their unique and incredible abilities.”

Lea Salonga is fantastic as Erzulie, Goddess of Love, and Quentin Earl Darrington is equally as mesmerizing in his role of Agwe, God of Water. However, the clear standouts of the show are Alex Newell as Asaka, Mother of Earth, and Merle Dandridge as Papa Ge, the Demon of Death. Newell steals the show in his explosive and radiant rendition of “Mama Will Provide." Dandridge both seduces and terrifies the audience and her cast mates every time she opens her mouth. The rest of the cast is also outstanding; each storyteller breathes gorgeous life into this pulsing musical with effervescent choreography by Camille A. Browne.

Arden, who directed the breathtaking revival of Spring Awakening (which included a diverse cast of both deaf and hearing actors) directs this show with a meticulously detailed hand. He went above and beyond in creating an immersive atmosphere recovering from disaster: clothes hang on the walls, garbage is strewn all over the theater, live animals mull about the sand-covered stage, and an overturned boat sticks out of a water-filled canal. This revival is performed in the round, which means that the audience surrounds the entire stage on all sides. Arden left no stone unturned with his astonishing direction; his love, passion, and deep connection to this show radiate tangibly throughout the entire piece. This show is simple and economic in its message: the power of love is resilient above all.

“The time is now in terms of how we have to look at people’s differences instead of claiming we are all the same," said Arden, "I think we need to look at our differences, and how those differences make us unique and how we build a bridge between them. This is the perfect time to tell a story about how love conquers hate, and even death.”

This musical completely shook me to my core. For the entire 90 minutes (this show is performed without an intermission), I beamed and wept as this dazzling story blossomed around me. It is absolutely my favorite show of the Broadway season so far (it opened on December 3rd), and if you see one show this holiday season, let it be this one (tickets start at $99 on TodayTix).

"There is an island
Where the rivers run deep
Where the seas sparkling in the sun
Earns it the name Jewel of the Antilles
An island where the poorest of peasants live
And the wealthiest of grand hommes play
And on this island?
We tell the story."

Photos courtesy of