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BWW Review: Michael Arden Stages ONCE ON THIS ISLAND With a Nod To The Dangers of Climate Change

While there's nary a mention of global warming or human-made climate change in Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens', captivating and joyous Caribbean story-theatre musical Once On This Island, director Michael Arden's exhilarating new Broadway production of the popular 1990 hit based on Rosa Guy's novel "My Love, My Love," smacks audience members with the issue as soon as they enter Circle In The Square.

BWW Review: Michael Arden Stages ONCE ON THIS ISLAND With a Nod To The Dangers of Climate Change
Hailey Kilgore (Photo: Joan Marcus)

As usual, the theatre has the audience looking down at the playing area from arena-style seating that surrounds the production in an oval. What viewers see in this case are the ruins of a small village the French Antilles, perhaps still feeling the effects of Hurricane Irma.

Parts of buildings and other debris lie on the sandy floor of designer Dane Laffrey's set. Villagers and rescue workers congregate around before the show. A makeshift kitchen is set up where food is being prepared. A fellow with a net checks for fish in the pond. A stray goat looks for food.

In this context, Once On This Island's important theme of passing culture on from generation to generation through storytelling gains greater urgency. What people build can be destroyed in moments. The ideas we pass on live forever.

The musical's play within a play structure has an ensemble of villagers distracting a frightened child from a scary thunderstorm by acting out the story of Ti Moune (radiantly singing and dancing Hailey Kilgore), an adopted girl from the peasant side of the island where the "black as night" natives live their lives controlled by the whims of the gods of Earth, Water, Love and Death.

Quentin Earl Darrington glistens with powerful charisma as Water and Lea Salonga radiates regal compassion as Love. Gender-fluid casting is used for the other two godly roles, with Merle Dandridge displaying commanding strength as Death and Alex Newell's Earth bringing down the house with the rousing "Mama Will Provide."

BWW Review: Michael Arden Stages ONCE ON THIS ISLAND With a Nod To The Dangers of Climate Change
Alex Newell, Lea Salonga and Merle Dandridge
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Ti Moune's prayers to find a purpose in life prompt an other-worldly bet to see which is stronger, Love or Death, and an encounter is arranged between her and the wealthy and handsome Daniel (Isaac Powell) from the side of the island where lighter-skinned descendants of French planters live. Ti Moune's love for Daniel tests the social restrictions that forbid a relationship between them and while the outcome of the story is realistic, it is also optimistic.

There is a symbolic ending to Once On This Island and Arden adds additional symbolism in the way it's executed, stressing the importance of communication.

For more than twenty-five years, Once On This Island has been delighting audiences with its combination of beautiful and catchy melodies and words that honor and embrace an enduring culture. Simply done with this exceptional ensemble cast, and especially with Camille A. Brown's striking choreography, carefully crafted for authenticity, this would be a sparkling jewel of a show.

But add to that Michael Arden's reminders of humankind's increasing vulnerability as the planet unnaturally evolves, and Once On This Island carries an even greater emotional force.

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