I like a lot of the shows I see, and sometimes I love them. Every once in a while (/every few weeks) I love love a show. But rarely am I struck with a realization that I’m getting to witness pure magic. I can remember a few times when I had such a moment, sort of an out-of-body momentary recognition that I am lucky to be in this audience, like I’m stepping back from watching the show itself and thinking oh man, am I here? It has nothing to do with whether I love love the show itself; I could just like the show but have this kind of detached awareness where I recognize that parts of it are flawless or beautiful or magical. In the past decade, I can remember this happening a few times. Once was during the big title number tap break in Sutton Foster’s “Anything Goes”. That’s like a ten-minute tap dance extravaganza and halfway through I was like oh my god this is still going on and it keeps getting better I can’t believe it. (It’s easy to understand why Jonanthan Groff was so equally obsessed that he learned all of Kathleen Marshall’s choreography (and imitated every one of Sutton’s vocal inflections.)) Next was when I saw “Hamilton” and Daveed Diggs rapped his “Guns & Ships”. This was before the album was recorded (OG right here) so no one had heard this before and I was like whaaaaat this is really happening in musical theatre erma erma! There were probably one or two other moments like that in the past few years, and the most recent, and most surprising, was during the new Broadway revival of “Once on this Island”. Surprising, because I had literally zero information about this show, and because the magic feeling lasted for pretty much the entire show. Not one song or one dance, but for the entire damn thing.
Going in, I didn’t know any of that. A few weeks ago, I went to the very first preview of the new revival on Broadway, which officially opens this Sunday. (I am not waiting to post my review until Sunday because a) I’m not a professional (that’s the hard and fast rule for professionals), b) it’s theatre Thursday y’all, and c) I’ve been made aware of the changes made in the past few weeks so I feel like the fact that I’ll share them when we talk about the relevant parts is enough. Also this is a rave. If I were blasting the thing maybe I’d wait to see a nonpreview. If you still have issues please buy me a ticket to see it again after Sunday and I’ll re-review it. you also need to buy airfare p.s.) All I knew going in was that Lea Salonga was in this production, and that Audra McDonald sang one song from it, “Come Down From The Tree”, on one of her early albums. That’s literally all I knew. I adore “Come Down From The Tree” and listened to it probably fifty billion times. Guess what, it’s not in the show; it was cut from the original production. That’s another thing I didn’t know. So I kept waiting for someone to start singing it, and that was disappointing (I’m still waitingggg), but that was the only disappointing thing about this production so we’re good. Also, the bright, gorgeous motif used in that song appears frequently throughout the show, like a gentle reassuring hug, and that made up for it.
As soon as we took our seats, there was an air of joy and excitement, the kind that doesn't happen in most other theatre experiences. It’s mostly due to the fact that it was the first preview and a lot of loved ones were there, but it was also because this show, at Circle in the Square Theatre, is performed in the round, so you can see everyone in the small audience (it’s like 6 rows all around, so small). It’s super intimate to share the experience like that and see the faces of the people you are going on this adventure with. Also, the lights were up and the cast was already in the middle, on the ‘stage’ – which was all sand, made over like a beach, with a little lagoon flowing out on one end. I was sitting above that lagoon, where Quentin Earle Darrington, dressed like King Triton, sat next to me during the entire preshow hubbub. On ‘stage’, the rest of the cast cleaned up debris and made comments about how we have to take care of the earth. Lea Salonga was dressed in khakis as a member of a Greenpeace crew or something, and she took a cell phone call and said something like ‘no phones!’ and threw the phone away. It was pretty cute to do before the show starts, as all the annoying latecomers filter in. Finally the cast started to get into place to begin the real show, and from the first few moments I was riveted. This score, how did I not know the score before? This was a huge blind spot in my knowledge of musical theatre, and while that’s shameful, it did let me experience this show in a special way that doesn’t happen often. Everything was new and exciting. Right away, the gorgeous music struck me with its joyfulness. It is lively and exuberant and you can feel the rhythm in your heart and soul. It's magic.
The show starts with a little girl in the Antilles who is scared of a storm. The villagers tell her a story about another little girl in a storm, one of their stories that gets passed down generations. The storytellers describe how villagers like them on an island like theirs once suffered a terrible storm, in which only a little peasant girl survived. And as they tell the story, that framing device gives way to the story they’re telling, our main story. On this island, the people zealously prayed to the four gods: Agwe, god of water (Quentin Earle Darrington, and why he looked like a hot black King Triton), Asaka, mother of the earth (blindingly good Alex Newell, who played the trans character Unique on ‘Glee’), Erzulie, goddess of love (Lea Salonga in full loving and warm mode), and Papa Ge, demon of death (Merle Dandridge in a role usually played by men but didn’t you hear, men are over and she is incredibly frightening and powerful and amazing). The storm rages – here the lights flashed and the sound of winds filled the room and I fully believed this storm. But apparently now they have actual rain and wind happening – like soaking everything and so you can feel the wind – so it’s even more powerful. Sad to have missed that but I’m glad I didn’t get wet. So this super wet and windy storm kills everyone else in the village, but the little girl is saved by the gods and found in a tree by two villagers, Mama Euralie (lovely Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin, one of my faves), who adopt her (hence why their names are mom and dad). They know that if Agwe wanted to kill her too, she would be dead, so they know that the gods saved her for a reason. The new parents name her Ti Moune, which they tell her means someone special saved by the gods for a reason, pretty on the nose. Ti Moune asks what the reason is, and her mother says the best line, “If we knew why the gods did the things they do, we would be gods ourselves.” I loved this because it recognizes how cray gods are if they are doing any of this shit. The music had already started reverberating in my heart but when the little girl started growing up and playing and she ran into the lagoon and Haley Kilgore (the actress playing the teenage Ti Moune) ran out, I was ALL IN. This was such a little bit of perfect simple direction that created this magical effect, kind of like everything in the show.
We meet our teenage Ti Moune with her big song “Waiting For Life”, and you could feel everyone in that audience wishing Haley well. This was this kid’s Broadway debut, carrying a show, and this was her moment to prove herself. And she did. I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience, including RuPaul (yes RuPaul was there erma), cried tears of happiness for her when she finished the song triumphantly. This is the kind of community that I love in the theatre. Aside from the two people across the aisle from me who wouldn’t stop talking and doing commentary like they were watching a movie in North Philly, we were all in this together and it felt like that good will and energy buoyed the actors even more.
This sense of theatrical joyousness remains throughout, but the upbeat story gets darker as we remember why the gods are watching Ti Moune – as part of a bet to see which is stronger, love or death. To find out whether Erzulie (love) or Papa Ge (death) has the stronger power, Agwe (water) raises the tide so that a young pretty-much-white boy crashes his car so that Ti Moune finds him and nurses him back to health. The fast-driving car and the crash formed another bit of simple direction, using just light and the actors, that had a magical effect, so much so that the audience applauded. There are no expensive special effects used in these amazing moments, just brilliant coordination of the actors. I love it. Daniel is from the rich side of the island, part of the people that keep the black peasants down, so Ti Moune's family and villagers just want to let him die, as that was clearly the gods’ wish, they argue. (It wasn’t, guys.) But Ti Moune falls in love with him because he so shiny, despite his being unconscious still. Papa Ge, terrifying with a costume literally made of knives, comes to her to take Daniel’s life, and Ti Moune begs the demon to spare him and to take her own life instead. Girl he’s not even AWAKE yet. A life is a life, so Papa Ge agrees to the exchange, leaving the two younguns and promising Ti Moune that she’ll be back later, as Ti Moune’s life now belongs to her. So like, it’s not a happy show really. Shit’s dark. But it’s so much fun to watch. And Merle is so badass I can't get over it. Like I fully believed she had godlike powers the whole time and still do now. I'm so in awe and so terrified.
While Daniel recovers, Tonton Julian goes to the other side of the island to find Daniel’s family and tell them he’s okay, I mean I imagine, and to find out more about them. Julian comes back and tells his village what he learned about Daniel’s ancestors - in like a shadow puppet performance. It's so cool; the ensemble stands being a white sheet and tells the story using their changing shadows. More amazing work, and so precise. The French aristocrat who colonized their island during Napoleon’s time had an affair with a black peasant girl, and they had a son named Beauxhomme (again so on the nose). Once grown, Beauxhomme helped the peasants win the war with the French colonizers, so his father cursed him and the island and all Beauxhomme’s descendants, now including the young Daniel, with their hearts yearning to return to France but never being able to, so they despise the peasants for reminding them of this or something racism is stupid. Regardless, Ti Moune won’t be stopped, and she leaves her family to go find Daniel in his hotel, where he lives, like Eloise. Ti Moune’s parents reluctantly let her go and that scene is so g-d moving it’s like Boykin my GOD what CAN’T you do.
On the long, hard journey, Ti Moune’s like, oh crap, how am I gonna eat and stuff while I walk for days or weeks or however long it takes to walk across an island? And Asaka, mother of the earth, appears with his banana and feather headdress and is like ‘girl I gotcha’. And then he blows the g-d roof off the theatre as he sings “Mama Will Provide”, as he like throws bananas and stuff at Ti Moune, I don’t know, I don’t remember the details I was just like WHO IS THIS MOTHER AND WHY IS SHE OTHERWORLDLY AMAZING. So it’s Alex Newell, and he is having a BALL out there with this song and it’s THE BEST. Hot damn he is talented. I can’t wait for the cast recording (please tell me there will be a cast recording) so I can set Alex’s “Mama” to play as my alarm clock so it gives me the strength and power to GREET THE GODDAMN DAY ERRR DAY WITH JOY AND GLEE GET IT BECAUSE HE WAS ON GLEE OH MY GOD HE IS AMAZING. I mean, what a Broadway debut for one thing, but I would for sure vote for him for a Tony for this performance. How cool would that be, to be nominated for this kind of sickmazing debut.
Anyway then the fun ends and Ti Moune finds Daniel in his room at the Plaza or whatever and they have lots of weird teenage sex and that couple across the aisle from me shouted things the entire time like GIRLL UH UHHH DON’T YOU DARE, girl noooo he’s not worth it, and I was like oh my god will you please be quiet, I’m trying to watch, which sounded pedo so I just let them keep talking. Lea Salonga sings her one big song, “Human Heart”, during all this, and Lea is the perfect embodiment of love and warmth and her voice is like a big fuzzy blanket. So so beautiful, you wish it wasn’t about teenagers doing what they’re doing but anyway. Of course, things are not that easy and that joy and love can’t last because CLASS and RACE and SHIT like that stands in the way. And also Daniel has a fiancée! Of course he does; everyone in his culture has arranged marriages based on status and money and they’re set up in order for families to acquire more status and money, didn’t you know that Ti Moune?? His fiancée is the gorgeous Alysha Deslorieux, the original Schuyler sister standby from “Hamilton”, who is kind of an evil mean girl but not really because she’s just trying to get through her life too guys, like everyone, and when she’s not wearing a Belle gown she’s in the ensemble showing everyone else how to wear jean shorts and you’re like damnnn that’s how you wear jean shorts when you have human thighs and it was the most inspiring part of this very inspirational show so much so that I actually bought jean shorts that weekend. Um anyway….Her existence just sucks for Ti Moune, who is heartbroken of course over the idiot Daniel who didn’t even know he was doing anything wrong because white guys, right. Daniel is a supremely unlikable character, as you can tell I’m sure, made somehow understandable and likable by Isaac Powell’s subtle, flawless performance. I mean you hate Daniel, you do, but you also can’t hate him for being born into this situation and being too privileged to realize what it means for others. PS THIS DOES NOT APPLY TO REAL LIFE, WHITE MEN; PRIVILEGE BLINDING YOU TO REALITY DOES NOT EXCUSE YOUR BULLSHIT.
Anyway then you’re like okay Ti Moune is heartbroken and OH YEAH, she promised her life to Papa Ge, I almost forgot, tell me that that demon doesn’t follow through on that? This theme of a girl’s sacrifice to let a boy be happy, and a black girl doing it for a white boy at that, doesn’t exactly hold up in our society, but it’s not meant to. No one involved in this production is presenting this idea literally as something to reflect outside the theatre, bozos. But it does portray the power of love and how much it can accomplish. Ti Moune’s transformation by the gods and her (its (spoiler)) power to build a path between the two classes of people and maybe to end the separation between them is a pretty good legacy to have. Ariel didn’t do any of that shit, she just turned into sea foam. Yeah that’s right, Disney lied, she didn’t go live in the castle with Eric and legs, she just turned into sea foam. Ti Moune, on the other hand, stood as a symbol of love and helped bridge the divide between peoples. And she didn’t have to wear a shell bra to accomplish that.
As her story ends, the framing device of the storytellers telling the story (that’s what they do that’s what they do) to the little girl returns, except now it’s in a village’s school and a BILLION little kids in navy school uniforms ran down all the aisles down to the stage as part of the classroom that just learned the story of Ti Moune. This was the one part of the entire show that threw me for a loop, in a not great way. I was too busy thinking ‘ahhh an army of children save yourselves save yourselves’ to really relish how this show came together. The kids were distracting and unnecessary, and having the one original little girl from the beginning learning how the folk tale ends would have accomplished the same goal, of showing how the stories are passed down so that new generations learn the tales and the lessons. Apparently, the creative team thought the same thing, because it turns out that all those kids have been axed now. Sorry poor little unemployed 7 year olds, go get a new job. No so it’s a smart move, but even with them and the confusion they caused I still was a mess at that ending because the storytellers showed the little girl little Ti Moune and Daniel dolls and I was just a basketcase when I noticed that because that's just like how we all were with toys from our culture's stories and then I cried even harder as the whole company sang about why they tell the story LOVE IS WHYYYY WE TELL THE STORY and so on ohmygod I need the recording now stat also I need to see this again and so do you the end goodbye.
The show is one act, about 90 minutes (of pure freaking theatre magic) so pee beforehand. The Circle in the Square has the WORST little tiny lobby so just expect to be rammed in like sardines when you go to the box office at street level. And then get down the escalators to the basement/main area as fast as you can.
The producers have implemented a 'best price guarantee' for this show, which is groundbreaking. It means that they're guaranteeing that you can get the cheapest tickets from the box office directly. So cool.
The joy of the first performance remained at 110% after the show, as most of the audience waited outside the main doors for the entire cast, every single one, to come out to raucous cheers. It was so beautiful. They seemed to be having a blast too, making fun of each other for taking too long to sign and stuff like that. Everyone signed and most seemed happy to take selfies (not Lea, but she never seems happy to stage door, which is kind of understandable when every single time I’ve seen her there have been like a dozen people at stage door screaming at her for being their idol and how they came from the Philippines to see her and how they are owed a picture for that and she’s like ‘please don’t kill me’ so I get why she seems reluctant). It was so much fun, EXCEPT, except, the show has the MOST ANNOYING social media team. They were taking pictures and videos of us, the crowd waiting at stagedoor, and of course I was right up front so I tried my best to hide my face with a playbill but still that shit is just so annoying and rude come on guys if I wanted people to be taking my picture I’d be the one coming out of that door, know what I’m saying?