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October 4, 2018

Why I saw Broadway’s Once on this Island Seven Times.

What could drive someone to go back again, and again to see the same production two, maybe three or four times? If you revisit a show that many times and you’re a real fan. Go more than that, and your friends might start thinking about you in the same way we collectively thought about that one family from the late 90s who saw the movie Titanic over five hundred times. Unlike the James Cameron feature, however, the Tony Award winning revival of Once on this Island offers so much to see, that it is almost impossible to capture the full experience of the story in one, or even two visits.

The fully immersive musical, with its real sand, fire, wind and water, currently running at the ever-adapting Circle on the Square Theatre, commands and diverts the viewer’s attention in so many different directions at once. Whether one is focused on the main character of the moment, how their counter part is reacting, or how various members of the ensemble interact with each other and the audience, there’s always something to look at.

I have seen Once on this Island a total of seven times now; always with a friend or acquaintance, and I am slowly creeping into the “is everything alright with you?” zone in my friends’ minds. I assure them that everything is, in fact, alright and that all of this was for the sole purpose of seeing Once on this Island from every possible angle. I managed to accomplish this feat in seven tries, and now I am here to share what I have learned as well as answer some questions from some followers of my story.

Seating

The question that I have received the most, between friends and acquaintances in real life, as well as from Twitter and Reddit askers is “Which section is the best?” I can honestly say that there is no bad seat in the house. There are seats that have special moments (i.e. having Alex Newell sing in your face during Mama Will Provide) as well as a section that I personally feel is the “home base” for the show, given that the beginning and ending face in that direction (the 202-248 section). However, the only reason one should pay more for a seat for is to get one’s feet in the sand; meaning front row seats. Even then, being so close to the action hyper focuses awareness on the action in front of the viewer instead of seeing the bigger picture.

Of relevance to anybody who has seen the show is The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes sequence. I have received several questions about what happens on “the other side” of this shadow play. I will say that while it is fun to see the actors performing from behind the curtain, this part of the show is best understood from the side of Daniel, as it serves as an explanation to one of the main conflicts of the musical and gives Daniel’s entire backstory, from his perspective.

What have you experienced as far as understudies/ standbys/ replacements etc.?

As a Black/Filipino American theatre goer I often joke that Broadway only gives us one show at a time. Anything more than that would be too much (Yes I know about and have seen the Summer musical), and while it may seem biased, I have to say that the entire company of Once on this Island is phenomenal. Aside from seeing the show from multiple angles, because of the unique staging at Circle on the Square, you also miss out on great talent when you see the show only one time. Lea Solanga, for instance, was a must-see for me (She’s the Beyonce of the Philippines), but Darlesia Cearcy is just as amazing as Erzulie the Goddess of Love, and even her understudy, Cassondra James Kellam, who usually sings and dances in the ensemble is a breathtaking force of musical and physical talent. Papa Ge, the Sly Demon of Death, has been played by the incomparable Merle Dandridge, the versatile and very character driven Tamyra Gray and the acrobatic and physically fit Rodrick Covington. I was even able to see the lead role Timoune played by newcomer Haley Kilgore before she broke her foot, her temporary replacement Loren Lott, and then Haley again after her recovery with a renewed spirit. I suppose that now that some of these names have played the role and moved on, it is too late to see the diversity in that aspect, but it will be interesting to see future iterations.

Favorite Spot?

With all of that being said, was there a favorite spot? It was something that the Once on this Island Broadway twitter account asked me directly prior to writing this up.

It’s very difficult to say. While I feel that the 202-248 section is the default area for viewing the show, there were so many more things I was able to see from the other sections of the show. In 201-247 I was able to treat one of my best friends, on his birthday, to having Alex Newell sing in his face, because I knew it was coming (Seat C237; only when Alex feels like it). In sections 101-247 I am best able to see Papa Ge as they stroll off stage during the end of one of my favorite parts of the entire show (a good middle of the story as it is one act, 90  mins).

If I had to choose a favorite spot, though, and I based it on the moment that moved me the most, it would have to be section 102-146, near the front. By the time I sat there, I had seen the show five previous times. Not knowing what to expect from this angle, I was stunned when I saw what was staged for The Human Heart. Without giving too much away, there is a line in the love song that says the ones who came before you. At that moment, the ensemble, who are dressed in the garb of 19th century Black folks, both rich and poor, are illuminated with special lighting that outlines only their clothing and hides their bodies in the darkness. It was an amazing image that struck me in the moment and has stuck with me ever since.

The story of Once on this Island is one of purpose, realization, perseverance, and ultimately, forgiveness and how that forgiveness can help heal the world. The show manages to balance its fun and flashy aspects with very important and necessary conversations surrounding racism, classism, and colorism. It is definitely a well-timed revival with content relevant to present day. If you haven’t seen it yet, go! If you have seen it, and you are curiously entertaining the idea of seeing it again from another perspective, go! In the end, who cares if people think you’re obsessed? This show is worth it!

For more Once on this Island coverage, make sure to listen to the episode of the podcast where we talk to one of the Story Tellers from the show, Cassonder Kellam!

What do you think?

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