by Mo Brady
The rapturous Broadway revival of Once On This Island opening on Broadway this week is bolstered by many strong components. Hailey Kilgore leads the production in a stunning Broadway debut as Ti Moune. The production design is sumptuous, thrilling the audience again and again with simple, but effective theatrical magic. But the show thrives thanks to the explosive and energetic contributions of its ensemble.
Like director Michael Arden’s last Broadway outing Spring Awakening, the show uses its entire company of actors as an ensemble, bringing them out onstage before the show begins to literally set the stage for the proceedings ahead. And along with Kilgore, each of the four actors playing the Gods bring lush and layered performances to their roles. However, alongside those five actors are the eight ensemble members with performances that are just as nuanced.
Once On This Island takes place on the night of a terrible storm, when a group of villagers come together to act out the story of an orphan named Ti Moune. Each performer plays multiple roles, from peasants to bourgeoisie. In addition to portraying these multiple characters, the ensemble works together to create and change the playing space, not mention to provide occasional musical support to the show's band. It’s a large load to put on any band of actors’ shoulders.
But this company of eight ensemblists are more than up to the task. It’s difficult to single out one standout among them because each extends such artistry to their performance. Darlesia Cearcy’s soulful voice is strikes right to the core with everyone of her all-too-brief solos. Rodrick Covington duets beautifully with Lea Salonga on her rapturous rendition of “The Human Heart.” Cassondra James is a perfect ensemblist, fully invested in every moment of the show’s proceedings (Making her Broadway debut in the show, I can't wait to see her onstage again). Tyler Hardwick is a chameleon, somehow frightening one moment and then winsome the next. And the combination of the emotive Kenita R. Miller as Mama Euralie and warm Phillip Boykin as Tonton Julian are a perfect pair.
In order to succeed, a production of Once On This Island must be equal parts structured and chaotic. At times, the company must work in perfect synergy to focus Ti Moune on the next step of her journey. At other times, the same actors must become distinct individuals, each wearing their heart on their sleeves. Yet, this company navigates these shift in tone with precision. They perform acute shadow play of "Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes," and then moments later dance with seemingly reckless abandonment in "Walk With Me." That duality makes the show thrilling to watch - the audience doesn’t know where we will be taken next, but we are sure we will be guided there expertly.
The company performs with such joy, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the show’s infectious energy. It’s hard to imagine a more engaging, better sung, more truthful production of Once On This Island than the one currently showing at the Circle in the Square.
Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller - Photo credit: Joan Marcus