What is more powerful? Love or death? That’s the question raised by the Caribbean folktale at the center of “Once On This Island,” now getting a glorious revival at Circle in the Square. As often happens in mythic tales, humans are little more than playthings for the gods, but there are lessons to be learned with earthly resonance as well.
One night, a small girl terrified of a violent storm is told the story of Ti Moune, a peasant girl who was cast adrift in a similar storm many years before, and her love for the grand homme, Daniel Beauxhomme. Ti Moune, the lone survivor of the storm from her village, asks the gods to show her her purpose. The gods initially laugh, but Erzulie, goddess of love, sends her love. This touches off a conflict with Papa Ge, demon of death, and thus the tale begins.
Ti Moune, who lives on the poor side of the island, saves Daniel who is wealthy. Ti Moune becomes the first person from her side of the island to breach the barrier between the two worlds, as she heals Daniel and they fall in love. But it is not to be. Daniel rejects Ti Moune for a wealthy wife. In her grief, Ti Moune plants herself outside the gate, immovable. She dies and is transformed into a tree whose roots destroy the gates and with them the separation between the two worlds. Love wins, and as the storm clears, the once-frightened little girl begins to tell the story.
Like many folktales, the apparent simplicity of the story is deceptive — and didactic. Daniel’s flaw is that he cannot see beyond his world. Ti Moune’s is that, blinded by her passion, she cannot see “reality.” Though their lives end in tragedy, like “Romeo and Juliet,” it is a lesson for those still living.
The musical with book and lyrics by Lynn Aherns and music by Stephen Flaherty was first seen on Broadway in 1990. This sumptuous production, directed by Michael Arden, is a feast for the eyes, ears, and heart. Arden has transformed Circle in the Square into the island, complete with dirt, livestock, and some masterful theatricality that conveys the dichotomous worlds in ways both abstract and human. With witty and gorgeous costumes by Clint Ramos, the show unspools in an orgy of color and vibrancy that is pure genius.
The company is uniformly excellent. Under the direction of Chris Fenwick, the score is beautifully realized by some of the finest voices going. From the opening number, “We Dance,” one is instantly transported into the world of the show. Sound design by Peter Hylenski is particularly noteworthy because Circle in the Square can be such a problematic barn for sound, yet here it sounds full and human. Standouts in the company include the gods Merle Dandridge as Papa Ge, Quentin Earl Darrington as Agwe, and Lea Salonga as Erzulie. Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune sings and acts brilliantly, and both she and the outstanding Isaac Powell as Daniel deliver star-making performances in their Broadway debuts.
After seeing — and laughing my way through — Steve Martin’s new comedy “Meteor Shower,” I may have to rethink my opinion of Amy Schumer. I know she has a devoted following, but I’ve always found her aggressively vulgar stand-up distasteful. Here, as Corky, the wife in one of the play’s two couples, she demonstrates a level of comic skill that ranks with the best comediennes of all time — Lucy, Carol, and so forth. With a look or a gesture, she reduces her audience to a puddle of giggles and outright belly laughs, and her timing is impeccable.
Martin has written a “great room” comedy. (In another time, we’d call that domestic architectural feature a “drawing room,” but that’s too quaint for the timely topics here.) Norm and Corky are a contemporary married couple, who “work on” their relationship in nearly every interaction. Martin is clearly skewering the god-awful, overly conscious behaviors promoted by talk shows and relationship books. (Moreover, they live in Ojai, California, so the self-conscious granola crunchiness is doubly trenchant.) These labored mechanisms are, of course, ridiculous and hilarious, but they seem to work for Corky and Norm.
That is until Gerald and Laura arrive, ostensibly to watch the celestial event of the title. Freewheeling, openly sexual, and unbounded by the strictures and rules that restrain Corky and Norm, they threaten to destroy Corky and Norm’s world. How they fight back and hold their own is what the fun is all about. To say more would ruin it, but with a mix of the absurd and the ridiculous, Martin’s 80-minute play is satirical and serious, reinforcing something many believe: relationships are worth fighting for.
In addition to Schumer the cast includes Keegan-Michael Key in his Broadway debut as Gerald. Not surprisingly for those who know his comedy, Key nails every moment and is, as the script demands, both sexy and annoying. Jeremy Shamos as Norm is hilarious. Shamos is easily one of the most versatile actors working today, equally at home in all types of work, but here his comic chops are on full display to great effect. Like so many others, I could go all fanboy on Laura Benanti in everything she does, and here she’s at the top of her form and like the rest of the company, lands every nuance and earns every laugh.
Jerry Zaks directs, so it’s no surprise that the company works so well together. No one can mine a script for comedy as he can, or find such sophistication in the silliness. Like the heavenly rocks Martin evokes, “Meteor Shower” burns bright as it blazes by.
“Junk,” now at Lincoln Center, is a fascinating tale of financial shenanigans in the mid-1980s as companies are bought and sold and the business of business shifts from making things to making money. Ayad Akhtar’s play recalls Lucy Prebble’s “Enron,” which dealt with similar themes. Akhtar, however, has more trust in the subject and is content to tell a rich story simply rather than freighting it with obscure theatricality. Indeed, the effectiveness of the play rests in its almost completely expository nature. Characters are developed only to the extent that they advance the story.
It works because there is something larger at work here. The essential conflict in the story is what happens when the quest for short-term gain obliterates all human considerations — and even sustainable business. Though set 30 years ago, the play is timely as we see how these tactics have undone so many American business. Case in point: the recent Toys “R” Us bankruptcy, where the can long kicked down the road finally hit a wall.
Akhtar writes powerfully and (pun intended) economically, and under Doug Hughes’ sure-handed direction makes even some of the more complex points accessible. The outstanding company includes Steven Pasquale, Henry Stram, Rick Holmes, Michael Siberry, Matthew Rauch, and, in a standout performance, Teresa Avia Lim, but all are excellent.
Especially as this holiday season winds up, we are conscious, with a nudge from Charles Dickens, of how business and pursuit of gain can rob our souls. But we don’t have Scrooge’s advantage of spectral intervention, and as the last moments of “Junk” make clear, some of us will never learn.
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND | Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway at 50th St. | Mon., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 & 7:30 p.m. | $89.50-$169.50 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 90 mins., no intermission
METEOR SHOWER | Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. | Through Jan. 21: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $59-$169 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 80 mins., no intermission
JUNK | Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th St. | Through Jan. 7: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $87-$147; telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 30 mins., no intermission
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