I saw Once on This Island when it premiered on Broadway nearly 20 years ago; I remember it as competent but uninspired, a musical written by -- how else can I say it? -- well-meaning white folks for high-wattage black performers. Why exactly does everything work so much better in Reprise Theatre Company’s revival production, which runs through September 14 at the University of California, Los Angeles’s Freud Playhouse?
First, credit its director, Billy Porter, who gave one of his first interviews as an out actor in The Advocate just three years ago. At the time Porter told The Advocate, “I sing like a black woman, you know, so whenever they wanted to stop a show they'd call Billy. They didn't want to know anything else about me. And I needed nourishment.”
Porter decided to stop protecting his perceived niche -- meaning, he stopped refusing to discuss his sexuality. He left all that behind when in 2005 he performed a musical memoir he wrote, Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am). Maybe you saw Porter’s killer photo of himself in suit and red spike heels—a go-to-hell pose to rally queens everywhere.
And he started directing. Trust me, that was a good move.
With Porter in charge, Once on This Island never gives you that uncomfortable twinge: Is this story true for the performers, or are they being asked to lift vanilla material by sheer force of African-identified charisma? Porter’s outstanding cast makes us believe we're on a Caribbean island -- “the jewel of the Antilles,” according to the lyrics -- and feel the capriciousness of the island’s gods: Earth, Water, Love, and Death.
Down on the ground, the story is like Romeo and Juliet, recast as a Caribbean folk tale that turns on the class snobbery of light-skinned, French-identified aristocracy toward the dark-skinned peasants who live at the will of the gods.