REVIEW: Once on This Island - 2018 Broadway Cast
Can a cast recording be "too perfect?" That's the question I kept asking myself as I listened to the new Broadway cast recording of the 1990 Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens musical Once on this Island, now receiving its first-ever Broadway revival. The answer is an unfortunate "yes." Before I explain how I get to this unusual pronouncement, some context is in order. This might be the third cast album of Once on this Island, but there was really a need for a new recording of this score. Both the original Broadway cast album and the London cast album, while full of musical vitality and energy, are marred by some pitchy performances (the London album in particular), so much so that at least for this reviewer, despite the wonderful breakout performance of La Chanze on the original cast album, I always found a number of tracks on both recordings to be uncomfortably unlistenable.
Which brings us to the new Broadway cast recording. Produced by Broadway Records (it’s their 100th release-congrats!) and featuring a first-rate cast, led by newcomer Hailey Kilgore, the new album is technically flawless. Not a single pitchy performance in sight and full of warmth and musicality. So why then my hesitation in wholeheartedly recommending this recording? What the album has in spades: smoothness, clarity, and polish, it sadly lacks in excitement and personality. It’s unclear as to whether the performers were asked to tamp down their performances or if the album is simply mixed in a way by Elliot Scheiner that put the vocals on the same level as every drum or xylophone, but the result is an album that is "pleasant" and "nice," when it should be electrifying and musically transcendent. Because in the theater, that’s exactly what these performances are: exhilarating and rafter-raising. On stage, Hailey Kilgore is a strong, passionate Ti Moune, but her performance here doesn’t hold a candle to that of La Chanze. But again, maybe that’s not her fault.
The stars of this album are not the actors, but all the island noises and percussive instruments that pervade the show. The new orchestrations of this production are indeed gorgeous as arranged by the show’s original orchestrator Michael Starobin along with AnnMarie Milazzo. As critic Daniel Gordon writes in the handsomely designed liner notes, the orchestrators have added "‘found’ instruments to the real ones . . . the actors themselves play ‘trashstruments’ made from flexible plastic pipes, old bottles, and more." The result is indeed transporting, and at times I often felt I was sitting in a Calypso bar somewhere in the Caribbean while listening to the album. Also pronounced are the wonderful vocal arrangements by composer Stephen Flaherty and AnnMarie Milazzo. Every "ooh" and "aah" is crisp and clean, every vocal harmony, perfection. And somewhere, amidst all the vocal backup and the island sounds and the five-piece band are the performers, who feel less like the stars of the show, but just one more vocal color in a wide rich soundscape. To borrow the words of a friend who listened to the album, it feels "like they sacrificed overall blend for making sure you can hear each and every melodica and tin can."
This is not to say that there aren’t some noteworthy performances captured here. The closest thing to a showstopper falls to Alex Newell as the goddess Asaka who goes into all-out belt mode on "Mama Will Provide." On the flip side of things, fresh-faced actor Isaac Powell as Ti Moune’s love interest Daniel, offers a tender and moving take on the song "Some Girls." Everyone else... is just sort of there.
So where does that leave this album? It’s nice to have such a polished recording of the show, but if you really want to capture the true excitement of this production’s score and performances, you’re going to have to go to the theater for that.
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Once On This Island - 1994 Original London Cast Once On This Island - 1990 Original Broadway Cast Once on This Island - 2017 Broadway Cast Once on This Island Lynn Ahrens Stephen Flaherty Michael Starobin La Chanze AnnMarie Milazzo Elliot Scheiner Alex Newell Hailey Kilgore Isaac Powell Mama Will Provide (6) Some Girls (4) Toggle Additional (12)