Billy Porter's Once on This Island Charms

Billy Porter, who gave one of his first interviews as an out actor in The Advocate just three years ago, breathes new life into the Broadway musical Once on This Island, running now at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.



Billy Porter x100 (publicity) |

Here, Juliet is the peasant Ti Moune (Kristolyn Lloyd), who begs the gods to reveal her destiny and show her the world beyond her village. From high above the action, the gods listen. Erzulie, goddess of love (Nita Whitaker), makes a wager with Papa Ge, god of death (Bryan Terrell Clark). Love is stronger than death, and Ti Moune will prove it. Enter high-born Daniel Beauxhomme (Jesse Nager) -- Ti Moune heals him after his car crashes near her village. His people fetch him back home; against her parents’ advice, Ti Moune follows. What happens next? You’ll have to see.

Once on This Island is still not my favorite show. The book doesn’t really work as it should; now, as on Broadway, the finale leaves me scratching my head. But this time the journey, at least, really entertains.

Choreographer Bradley Rapier, whose bio is all about hip-hop, unleashes wind and rain as well as a gumbo of seductive African-flavored dances. The ensemble is so good, so rounded, that every sung moment is a pleasure and every dance moment shines. And the scaled-down Reprise production actually helps the original show: Instead of the multicolored motley worn by the original cast, these actors are all in simple white cotton. Faces and bodies get the attention they deserve.

One of the biggest pleasures in the Reprise production is the show’s big number, “Mama Will Provide,” sung by the earth goddess, Asaka, to help Ti Moune on her long journey. The original production relied on the stars, LaChanze and the great Lillias White, to sell a pretty generic song. In Porter’s production, “Mama Will Provide” achieves electric moments, thanks to an updated arrangement and the vocals of Ledisi, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who’s not half as famous as she ought to be.

A final word for my gays: As Papa Ge, the buff, seemingly seven-foot-tall Bryan Terrell Clark will make you shiver in more ways than one. And P.S.: That evil god’s name? It’s pronounced Papa GAY.