Review: 'Once on This Island' brings Broadway's magic to ASU

Director Michael Arden's adaptation tells a timeless story of struggle and triumph

After the announcement of ASU Gammage's 2019-20 Broadway series, I knew I could not miss the opportunity to see "Once on This Island" for a second time. 

My sister and I first saw the revival production in December 2017 at the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City. I was unfamiliar with its premise beforehand, but after seeing the show, it became one of my favorite musicals, thanks to its ever-relevant themes and upbeat yet haunting soundtrack. 

"Once on This Island" is based on the 1985 novel "My Love, My Love: or The Peasant Girl" by Rosa Guy. It is often described as the Caribbean retelling of "Romeo and Juliet." The musical centers around Ti Moune, a young peasant girl who is nearly killed by a great storm. The gods decide to spare her life, knowing Ti Moune has a greater purpose. 

When translating a Broadway musical from a residency to a touring production, cuts sometimes have to be made in terms of set design. At the Circle in the Square Theatre, each seat surrounds the stage. So director Michael Arden made sure to completely transform it for "Once on This Island." 

Sand covered the stage, water was held in a small basin off to the side, and a large "tree" laid in the center. Each corner was coated in rich color, and fabrics were meticulously picked to nod back to the show's Caribbean roots. I fondly remember interacting with the actors as they walked on and off, especially when Alex Newell, who played Asaka, made food on a hot plate right before my eyes. 

Initially, I was worried the tour would lack this magical and immersive nature. But to my excitement, the crew practically recreated the set straight from Broadway, adapting it to fit Gammage designs. I particularly loved how the show offered onstage seating similar to what I had experienced. Being able to see a musical up close is something truly special. 

However, there was one flaw in the design. For most of the show, attendees seated on the stage had to stare at the actors' backs, who were performing directly to the crowd. Certain visual effects, especially during "The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes," were missed because Gammage has a traditional arrangement, unlike Broadway theaters, which tend to be more uniquely designed in terms of seating. 

The costumes were the exact same as those on Broadway, so it was exciting to see the little nods I was familiar with. 

All of the gods' costumes transform from simple outfits to more complex pieces that capture the narrative, embodying each god's characteristics and titles. Agwé, god of water, starts in simple swim trunks, but his connection to the sea becomes more prominent as his face is painted in hues of blue and he wears a headdress reminiscent of a jellyfish's tentacles. 

The show also uses unconventional items for costumes such as a tablecloth for Asaka's skirt and transformed Coca-Cola cans as a spiky spine for Papa Ge. 

I also enjoyed how this production continued Arden's decision to make the gods gender-neutral. Traditionally, Asaka is played by a female and Papa Ge by a male. However, the 2017 revival changed this by swapping the gender of these characters. 

This directorial choice has allowed amazing actors and actresses to showcase their vocal skills in roles they have not been normally afforded. I especially enjoyed seeing Tamyra Gray, who was in the Broadway production, reprise her role as Papa Ge. 

"Once on This Island" connects the concepts of life, pain, grief, faith and hope through Ti Moune’s journey of racial and social class differences. Ti Moune and her "adoptive" parents, Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie, live on a segregated island. One side houses the "grands hommes," who are lighter-skinned descendants of the French colonists and their slaves. On the other side reside the peasants, who are "black as night." 

Throughout the musical, the divide between these two groups is evident. The city and village are split by large gates, and armed guards protect the Hotel Beauxhomme. The peasants are dressed in mismatched garb and the wealthy sport finely-pressed linens. 

The two are forcibly brought together, however, when Daniel Beauxhomme, a grand homme, crashes his car in the peasants' village, the gods, Asaka, Agwé, Erzulie, and Papa Ge, decide to answer Ti Moune's prayers to see if love is truly stronger than death. 

After Ti Moune discovers Daniel's body, she realizes it is her duty to restore his health, promising she has always been intended for him. 

But people constantly call Ti Moune crazy for even trying to save Daniel, saying that he'll leave her once he's healed. The peasants equate Daniel to the devil, saying the only way to help him is "to send him back to his world." 

Likewise, the number "The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes" explains how the Beauxhommes are cursed to forever remain on the island due to their "black blood," though their "hearts yearn forever for France." 

The Beauxhommes try to separate themselves from their heritage and completely disregard where they are from. As a result, they demean the peasants and treat them as incompetent and naive, even though they're not that different from one another — the peasants say that the Beauxhommes "despise us for our blackness" because "it reminds them where they're from." 

The song "Some Girls," Daniel's only solo in the musical, inadvertently continues these actions. There is more to it than its sweet, melodic instrumentals and tunes would like to portray. He sings about how Ti Moune is different from others. She is "wild" and child-like while other girls are "cultured," "prim" and "pale." He infantilizes her based upon her skin color, showing that he finds her inferior not only in terms of race but also class. 

Although Daniel claims to love Ti Moune, he knows he isn't supposed to because the barrier between the pair's social standings is far too vast — "some girls you marry, some you love," he sings.

In the end, Daniel chooses his life of riches over his love for Ti Moune, causing her to lose her free will to Papa Ge. But, when given the chance to reclaim her life by stabbing Daniel, Ti Moune refuses and professes her love to Daniel, who banishes her from the hotel. 

The gods take pity on Ti Moune and grant her everlasting life through rebirth as a tree — one that grows so strong it breaks the gate between the grands hommes and the peasants. 

As a result, Ti Moune's story lives on. No matter how sad or heartbreaking it is, the peasants continue to tell her tale — to teach of the power of love. 

I think it's message that we should live by. "Once on This Island" teaches us to educate others about the injustices we face in order to learn from the errors of the past and to create a brighter and better future. 

"Once on This Island" will continue to run at Gammage until March 8 as part of the venue's Broadway series. 


Reach the reporter at omunson@asu.edu and follow @munson_olivia on Twitter. 

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