When you enter the theater to see Once On This Island, you immediately understand that this show is going to be something un like anything else you’ll see on Broadway. Not only because there’s a live goat on stage. Rather, it’s full of life and joy, even before the show begins, and it begs you implicitly to buy in and let yourself journey to another location with your imagination.
Michael Arden stages this fairy tale that takes places on a Caribbean island at a time when so many people are looking for a distraction. Many people are in need of a show just like this one, set in a distant place where gods are in charge and the natural goodness of humans will prevail. Designers Dane Laffrey and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer seem to achieve the impossible in that way, transforming a theater into a far-off place where magic is possible and beauty is apparent for all to see.
The story itself centers on Ti Moune (Emerson Davis), an orphan who washes up ashore and the lovely and loving people who take her in, clothe her, feed her, and wind up raising her. But when Ti Moune comes of age, she has other ideas for how she can spend her days than what her caregivers might think. Ti Moune dreams of a world where the two sides of this island get along and live happily ever after as one unit. She quickly calls for Daniel, played by Isaac Powell, a rich kid from the other part of the island, someone whom she’s told wouldn’t want to have anything to do with her. Still, she persists.
If the plot seems familiar or predictable, it’s intended both to be and not to be. Really, it’s the ensemble cast — which offers up lively song and dance throughout the show — that makes the show come alive so magnificently. It’s truly a family affair, as everyone hangs on to Ti Moune’s hopes and dreams to rectify bad blood of the past and to re-imagine what the world can be going forward. Nobody wants to label her naive or to stand in her way. She learns a lot about humanity and also the inhumanity that can surface at times, but it’s crucial for her to set out on her own and to make these discoveries independently. There might not be a ‘happily ever after’ that you’d expect at the outset, however there’s enough to consider that it makes Once on This Island a unique and influential show during this season.