Once On This Island; RIP Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Alex Newell and Hailey Kilgore, photo @ Joan Marcus
The revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Once On This Island has been getting insanely good word-of-mouth in early previews. I went to see what the fuss was all about last night. First of all, Circle in the Square is exactly the right theatre for this show. The boxed-in seating allowed director Michael Arden to make the entire set an "island." The pre-show involved the cast milling about a sand-and-water-filled set complete with goats and chickens. The ceiling of the theater had bunches of laundry lines. They obviously were trying to recreate the feel of a real Caribbean island. A little cheesy, but it worked.

The island set
The story is simple and sad: it is about Ti Moune, a peasant orphan who falls in love with Daniel (Isaac Powell) after she saves his life after a car crash. She tenderly nurses him until he is well enough to return to his home. She impulsively decides to follow him into his world. Unfortunately Daniel is separated from Ti Moune by not just class but race -- he is descended from the French colonial rulers, and their love story can only be a fleeting fling. Ti Moune is given an impossible choice: save herself or save Daniel. The predictable heartbreak ensues. This musical is really "Little Mermaid in the Caribbean With a Touch of Colonial Racism."

Hailey Kilgore
The revival is strongly cast. It is anchored by Hailey Kilgore's radiant portrayal of Ti Moune. Kilgore makes Ti Moune an absolutely enchanting wide-eyed romantic. She runs onstage, and we love her. She sings "Waiting For Life" (the I Want song), and we want what she wants. She dances, and we want to go onstage and dance with her. She weeps, and we weep. She has a beautiful voice, and an unaffected, winning stage presence. It's an amazing performance.

Here she is in a snippet from "Waiting for Life":

Actually the whole cast is strong. The ageless Lea Salonga is still beautiful in both voice and face as Erzulie, one of the island goddesses. Merle Dandridge is terrifying as Papa Ge, God of Death. Kenita R. Miller got huge applause as Ti Moune's adopted mother. Alex Newell's "Mama Will Provide" was a big hit with the audience. The story is framed by a little girl named Emerson Davis who was adorable. And Isaac Powell is believable as the kind of callow playboy who nonetheless harbors real feelings towards Ti Moune. The final farewell of Ti Moune and Daniel was heartbreaking.

Cast of OOTI, photo @ Joan Marcus
Another strength of the production is the choreography by Camille A. Brown. There is a real attempt to imitate the easygoing, natural rhythms of Caribbean music and dance. Perhaps the greatest moment is Ti Moune's dance in front of Daniel's society. She is in red high heels, and she cannot dance in them. She kicks off the shoes and does an exciting, seductive dance that obviously titillates the upscale crowd. In one moment she shows Daniel's society what they can never have -- this freeness and generosity of spirit.

But, but, but. If this show had limited itself to being a wistful fable of love found and lost again, the charming, colorful score might have been enough. However, the story actually takes an extremely tragic, bleak turn at the end. And Flaherty's score simply does not have the depth to convey the tragedy that is built into the musical's book. I mean, think of the opera Rusalka (which has an almost identical storyline). Rusalka has lasting power because Dvorak's score always underlines the tragedy of the story. If a musical wants to break our heart, the music has to do the major legwork. Think Carousel. West Side Story. Or, in more recent times, Dear Evan Hansen and Fun Home.  In Dear Evan Hansen songs like "Waving Through a Window," "For Forever," and "Words Fail" made the audience feel Evan's pain and loneliness. Fun Home ended with the heartwrenching "I'll Fly Away" with all three Alisons singing to Bruce Bechdel. People around me were sobbing. Flaherty's score is wonderful in conveying Caribbean local flavor, it has enough melancholy to carry the love story, but when it comes to the heartbreak and tragedy that make up the last third of the show, the music simply does not take us there. "A Part of Us" and "Why We Tell the Story" seem like weak attempts to finish the show.

Would I recommend Once On This Island? Absolutely. It's a fun theatrical experience. But the musical I think was intended to be more than "fun." It was intended to be a heartbreaker. And Flaherty's score didn't break my heart.

What did break my heart was that last night when I came home from Once On This Island a friend of mine told me that things were looking very grave for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Russian baritone who has been battling brain cancer for over two years. I went to bed saddened. When I woke up I saw that he had passed away overnight. He was only 55. I last saw him in an emotional performance of Il Trovatore in September 2015. The ovation at his entry was so loud the orchestra had to stop completely. He gave us a beautifully sung Count di Luna. At the end of the evening the Met orchestra threw roses at him and his colleagues were standing back and crying openly. I never saw him perform again. I guess God wanted to listen to his voice. RIP to this magnificent singer and artist.


  1. THANK YOU FOR UPLOADING THE MUSICAL! <3 <3 <3 I live in Asia and will never be able to watch this staging live on Broadway so this recording will keep me happy until the official cast album comes out in February! <3

  2. I came here to read about NYCB & PB but also read your tribute to Dmitri Hvorostovsky. His death is heartbreaking.

    1. Yes it is. Such a loss. He was also a funny person and beloved by the staff at the Met. To get an idea of his sense of humor:


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