[wp-review] Once On This Island won the 2018 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival. It’s an intimate Broadway show where the actors walk through the audience because the entire circle in the square – is the stage. Sitting in Row AA, my shoes rest on the sand, part of the crowd across from me, but they blend into nothingness as the show begins. By the end, my heart is clenching but not because of the music.
Let me explain, I had never heard of this musical until a Facebook ad popped on my feed saying Lea Salonga on Broadway! Now, my wife is from the Philipines and Ms. Salonga is their national treasure. So, when her name is mentioned, there are only two questions asked: Where is she? and When are we going? When she was touring with her Cabaret show, one of her stops was the Tilles Center at C.W. Post Campus in 2017. My wife was in awe and almost speechless when meeting her in person. Once I mentioned, Ms. Salonga was returning to Broadway – wife was all in.
The 1st Rule of Once On This Island: No Photos. Period.
They have a marquee set up outside the theater doors for you to take images and tag them on social media. The young woman who ran the lottery before the show was quite clear about this. She also took all the photos for anyone who wanted them. Sadly, after looking at the hashtags on Instagram, people didn’t respect the wishes of the cast or crew. In fact, I heard many of the actors telling audience members to put away their phones or no pictures. It was shameful.
The 2nd Rule of Once On This Island: Respect The Cast & Crew.
Once we walked in there was a small girl sitting in the middle, playing with some pages from her backpack. Slowly, as most of the audience took their seats, more of the actors graced the stage. They mingled a bit with the audience while they cleaned up the “trash” or bottles that were left on the sand. The couple next to us took their shoes off and leave them in the sand. One actor, David Jennings, politely informed them security would tell them to put the shoes back on. They considered it a fire hazard since the first response would be to put their shoes back on. Needless to say, they told the actor – “We’ll pretend we didn’t hear them.” Referencing security’s demands. It’s wrong and disrespectful.
The 3rd Rule of Once On This Island: Phones Go Away Or Go Swimming.
Right before the show was about to begin, they did a small skit where a cell phone was ringing and no one silenced it. The actors complained, grabbed a fake phone and jokingly told the audience they would throw the phones to the fisherman if they rang. He stood in the audience above the water with a net – they tossed him the phone, he missed and the phone was swimming. It was amusing but effective. I saw many phones go away quickly.
I loved that simple part of the show. One because they were candid about the rule, made it memorable and not the normal robotic reminder, and it also forces you to pay attention to the story unfolding in front of you.
Now, before I continue with my review, please understand I LOVE Musicals. I love singing the songs after the show. I rarely leave one without having at least one song in my head for the entire trip home. That streak of almost twenty years ended in June 2018. The musical soundtrack for me wasn’t enough. The singing was beautiful, the performing top notch, but the music itself did nothing for me. This was the first time in my life where the story outshined, outclassed and outmatched anything the music could do. The words seemed to waste away as the voices etched emotions throughout it all. The performances were so raw, so powerful that it hit you like a punch to the gut. The Tony Award Winner earned it with every piece that they perfectly fit into a larger puzzle.
I’ve seen a myriad of shows during my lifetime but never one as intimate as this. As I mentioned previously, the stage is in the center of the theater. The setting they use is a beach with a downed telephone pole, a section where water flows and the back of a cargo container. My first thought was about how unique it felt. My second thought was about how sand and water get everywhere. Cleanup might be rather difficult. That to me explains why there was no intermission. You are on the ride for a full 90 minutes.
I have a name for you that the entertainment industry better get used to hearing: Hailey Kilgore. Her voice shook the rafters with its power and tore a hole in you with its emotion. Her utter command of the
stage and subtle movements pulls you into her character’s plight with such force that you are never free. You feel her fear when she leaves her home. You anguish over her broken heart when her love is denied. You see the outcome and you fight tears. She makes you believe in Ti Moune’s ability to change the world.
Her character was spared during a massive storm, raised by a loving couple and denied by a man on the other side of the fence. She kept saying she was spared for a greater purpose. In the end, as my heart broke, was to show us that love was the most powerful tool in the world. It can defy anything, including death. Even after someone is gone, the love we have for them lives on in us. It defies death. I don’t believe anyone else could have captured the essence of this heavy message like Ms. Kilgore. I think many will try after her, but like Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera… some roles will forever be tainted by the one who held it originally.
The music didn’t make me want to run out and own the soundtrack. It didn’t have to. The cast brought together a performance that was something I have never seen before and I doubt I will ever see again. In the world today, the climate of the current political structure of the United States, the message of love and compassion is needed. This musical does that and so much more. Once On This Island gives us a musical full of darkness with a shining spotlight of hope to withstand and overcome it.
A fun little final tidbit. Lea Salonga was leaving the production at the end of June, which is why we rushed to grab tickets during Pride Month. There was a lovely couple to my left from California. Ms. Salonga wished them a Happy Pride and married them via Filipino tradition. She was so close to us that my wife was speechless. Sheila, of course, mentioned that we were married too. It made me smile and be thankful for the kindness, whether or not in character, that a woman in her position shared with the four of us.