They Danced: Once On This Island Benefit Beats to Sound of 'The Human Heart'

News   They Danced: Once On This Island Benefit Beats to Sound of 'The Human Heart' Ti Moune might have put it this way: "Oh, gods! Oh, gods! You were there!"
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Ti Moune might have put it this way: "Oh, gods! Oh, gods! You were there!"

Members of the original Broadway cast and national tour of Once On This Island, the 1990 musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, sang to the gods and raised the roof of the Winter Garden Theatre for two performances, 3 and 8 PM May 12. The sold-out reunion concerts were produced by Andrew Kato for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The concerts raised $200,000.

At the 8 PM performance, LaChanze, the Tony Award nominated actress who originated the role of Ti Moune — the island girl who goes on a journey of the heart to find her love — sang "Waiting for Life" center stage and was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation.

The show was stopped several times by knowing applause for the performers or moments that fans have come to cherish. The Caribbean-flavored musical began April 6, 1990 at Playwrights Horizons and transferred to Broadway for a run of more than 500 performances. It was nominated for eight Tony Awards in 1991. Its London staging earned the Olivier Award for Best Musical. Once On This Island's reputation has grown over the years through the original cast album.

The lean, 90-minute musical is based on Rosa Guy's novel, "My Love, My Love," a variation on "The Little Mermaid," set on an island in the French Antilles. A group of peasant storytellers recounts the tale of Ti Moune to a child who is afraid of a rumbling tropical storm. As the storytellers assume all roles, the fairy tale bursts forth: The gods make a plan to test Ti Moune. Can love conquer death? Dark-skinned Ti Moune falls in love with a light-skinned handsome stranger whose car has crashed on her side of the island. After she nurses him, he is taken back to his rich family and she knows she must follow — it's what "The Human Heart" dictates. The company included Natalie Venetia Belcon (of the first national tour) as Erzulie, Goddess of Love; Monique Cintron (of the tour) as Andrea; and original Broadway cast members Jerry Dixon as Daniel; Sheila Gibbs as Mama Euralie; LaChanze as Ti Moune; Kecia Lewis as Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Gerry McIntyre (who also staged the concert) as Armand; Milton Craig Nealy as Agwe, God of Water; Eric Riley as Papa Ge, Demon of Death; and Ellis E. Williams as Tonton Julian. Melika Samuel, age 10, played Little Ti Moune.

Lillias White (who stepped into the Broadway production later) appeared at concert's end to sing "Come Down from the Tree," a song cut from the musical but known on recordings.

Niki Rene, who played the original Little Ti Moune, made an appearance — all grown up — at the curtain call. Niki Rene, who originated the role of Andrea on Broadway, had just given birth and was not able to appear in the concert.

The curtain call included Ira Weitzman, the Playwrights Horizons director of musical theatre who helped shepherd the work in 1989-90, plus Ahrens, Flaherty and the original director-choreographer, Graciela Daniele.

Steve Marzullo conducted Michael Starobin's original orchestrations.

Emilio Sosa was costume coordinator (lots of bright island colors, with simple accessories such as necklaces and hats). Ed McCarthy designed lights. Craig Cassidy was sound consultant. Kimberly Russell was production stage manager.

In memory of LaChanze's husband, Calvin Gooding, who died at the World Trade Center Sept. 11, a portion of the May 12 proceeds will be donated to The Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund.

At the 8 PM curtain, LaChanze introduced two little Ti Mounes of her own — daughters Celia Rose and Zaya LaChanze.

The industry-filled audience at 8 PM included Rosie O'Donnell, Michael Hall, Janine LaManna, Neil Patrick Harris and more.

Heard on the way out: "This needs to be revived. Now."

To view Playbill On-Line's Brief Encounter interview with lyricist-librettist Lynn Ahrens, who talks about Once On This Island, Ragtime and more, click here.

— By Kenneth Jones