Handout art for 'Once on This Island'

Eric Hufford is Daniel and Anastasia Stewart is Ti Moune in the Red Branch Theatre Co. production of "Once on This Island," opening this weekend in Columbia. (Courtesy of the Red Branch Theatre Co. / October 13, 2011)

"This is my favorite show of all time, actually," said director Stephanie Williams about the new musical production she's overseeing for the Red Branch Theatre Company, "Once on This Island."

Ironically enough, Williams wasn't even originally slated to direct the production, which opens Oct. 14.

As the owner of the Drama Learning Center, which houses the Red Branch Theatre Company, Williams is generally pretty busy — and her business has increased lately, since the company is planning on moving by early next year.

But when the director she had initially hired had a scheduling conflict and couldn't do the job, Williams had little choice but to step in.


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"I said, 'Well, I think that's a sign that maybe I'm supposed to do it after all,' " she said with a laugh.

Busy or not, she's happy with the decision because it has given her a chance to become reacquainted with the show.

"It has a beautiful story and the music is amazing," the Columbia resident said. "I fell in love with this show when I first saw it, back when I was in college. I've seen a couple of different productions, and from the very first time the story really, really touched me."

"Once on This Island" is a 1990 off-Broadway musical that became so popular that it ended up on Broadway a few months after its opening. The story, which was based on the novel "My Love, My Love" by Rosa Guy, takes place on an unnamed Caribbean island and tells of an ill-fated romance between a peasant girl and a well-to-do uptown boy whom she saves from death.

The play has seen several revivals, notably one in London two years ago. Its popularity largely stems from the universal appeal of the story, which draws from elements of both William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and the Disney movie "The Little Mermaid."

However, it's the melodious score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty that Williams said leaves her with a sigh each time she hears it.

"I think it's some of the most beautiful music in musical theater," she said. "From the first couple of notes in the beginning of the show I get goose bumps. Actually, pretty much throughout the whole show that happens to me."

The upcoming production isn't the first time Williams has overseen the play. Three years ago she also directed it for the Drama Learning Center's resident teenage troupe. That's another reason she didn't want to tackle it again.

"I felt I still had that production in my mind and didn't want to just recycle an old production," she said. "I wanted to do something completely different, but there were really nice things about that production I'm incorporating.

"When you have different actors and a different cast, everyone's bringing something different to the table anyway, so it is a different production."

Williams inadvertently stumbled across some important insight into how the play's action unfolds when she spent time studying abroad in Ghana, West Africa, in college. While researching African theater and how it relates to the storytelling tradition, she realized the play was told utilizing the model of storytelling.

"It's where a bunch of storytellers from a community come together to tell a story and then they take on the personas of these different characters," she explains. "That was a really cool connection to make."

The play originally called for a cast composed entirely of African descendants, Williams says, noting that lighter skinned actors were cast in the roles of the rich folks, while darker skinned actors were used in the roles of the peasants.

But, in accordance with a directive given by the playwrights, Williams has cast the show along racial lines.

"It's definitely a casting challenge if you want to be 100 percent true to the script," Williams explains. "They make a note in the beginning of the script that for amateur productions they understand the themes of the story are still relevant even if you don't stick to (the original casting concept)."

The cast will feature Anastasia Stewart in the lead female role of Ti Moune and Eric Hufford as the male lead, Daniel. Other featured local actors include Mycah Brown, Michelle Harmon, Wil Lewis, Mark Stephens, Felicia Akunwafor, Cory Jones, Samatha McEwen and Peter Crews.

Actors playing the roles of storytellers include Portia Boston, Tanika Cook, Brandi Dyer, Kristina Hopkins, Cristina Shunk, Monece Starling and Claire Schreibfeder.

The show may also be the final production to take place in the Drama Learning Center's longtime space on Red Branch Road. Williams, who bought the business several years ago, says it has outgrown its space and so she's negotiating to get a bigger office at a nearby Red Branch Road location.

"Our hope is that this will be the last main stage production and we'll move over the holiday break," she said. "It's coming up on five years of me owning the business. We didn't think we'd need to move so quickly, but it's a good problem to have."

The Red Branch Theatre Company will present "Into the Woods" Friday-Saturday Oct. 14-15, 21-22 and 28-29 at 8 p.m. and Sundays, Oct. 16 and 23, at 3 p.m., at the Drama Learning Center (9130-I Red Branch Road, Columbia).

The Oct. 21 performance will be a "Parents Night Out PJ Party," 7:30-11 p.m., where parents can drop their children off to see the show under the supervision of the Drama Learning Center's teaching staff. After the show, children can enjoy snacks, arts and crafts, and theater-related activities.

Advance admission is $18 general, $16 for students and senior citizens and $15 for groups of 10 or more. Tickets are $20 at the door ($25 for the children's party). Reservations are recommended. Call 410-997-9352 or go to http://www.redbranchtheatre.com.