A Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, a Shakespearean tragedy and an epic poem from ancient Greece come to the forefront in the two-act musical stage play “Once on This Island.”
A mix of Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Homer’s “The Iliad,” “Once on This Island” opens Friday for a three-weekend run at the 114-seat Cutting Edge Theater in Slidell. Brian Fontenot directs a cast of 40 in this stage adaptation of Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel, “My Love, My Love.”
Set on an unnamed island in the French Antilles, the inhabitants are segregated by shades of color. Poor, dark-skinned denizens who make up the peasant class live on one side of the island and lighter-skinned, more affluent descendants of French planters live on the other. Between the two groups there is very little interaction.
That all changes when, in “Little Mermaid” fashion, a peasant girl named Ti Moune rescues Daniel, a wealthy boy from the other side of the island, and falls in love with him. He falls in love with her also but, as in “Romeo and Juliet,” class distinctions and family pressures conspire to keep them apart.
The relationship is further complicated by the intervention of the gods and goddesses who preside over the island. Like their Homeric mythological counterparts who took sides in the Trojan War, the island’s deities make bets on the outcome of this improbable romance, then intervene when the opportunity arises to tilt the outcome in their favor.
A hairstylist by trade, Fontenot is a relative newcomer to the greater New Orleans theatrical scene, taking up acting about eight years ago and opening the Cutting Edge Theater in the same building as his Slidell styling salon around the same time.
However, in that short span, he made remarkable strides in both acting and directing, as well as managing the logistics of being a theater owner/operator. In addition to directing “Once on This Island” and many other productions over the years, he also has acted in a number of plays.
“Once on This Island” features 17 songs. “I’ve always loved it since it came out, but it hasn’t been done in this area in a while,” Fontenot said. “So I’m taking a fresh approach to it and really just putting my heart and soul into it. I’ve always loved the music. It is so uplifting to me. It’s such a beautiful score.”
However, Fontenot faced a casting hurdle. Nearly all of the roles call for African-Americans of varying skin tones, and a shortage of black actors on the north shore posed a dilemma he could only resolve by selecting what he termed “a color-blind cast.”
Two of the leading male actors are African-American and the rest of the cast is white. Makeup artists provided the varying hues called for in the script.
Fontenot also pointed out that the show is largely “a family affair” with parents — mostly mothers — onstage with their children or nieces and nephews. There are seven of these family groups performing, including one that includes a grandmother, a mother and a son.
“It’s a really nice way for parents to do something with their kids by being onstage with them,” Fontenot said. “It’s very rarely done anymore.”
The major cast members include Skylar Broussard as Ti Moune; Alcee Jones as Daniel; Sara Schultz as Ti Moune’s adoptive mother, Euralie; and Brandon Bolton as Julian, Ti Moune’s adoptive father. The roles of the gods Asaka, Agwe, Erzulie and Papa Ge are all double cast. Kima Mangerchine is the choreographer. The musical accompaniment for the songs is prerecorded.
“Once on This Island” will run Thursdays through Saturdays, Aug. 21-Sept. 5, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22 to $25. For tickets, call (985) 649-3727 or visit cuttingedgetheater.com.