Jennifer Frechette couldn’t imagine her daughter going off to high school where a drama club didn’t exist. Then her daughter went off to Wilbur Cross High School, which last staged a student production, Grease four years ago.
This week, thanks to Frechette, Wilbur Cross theater is back.
A lifelong actor and dancer who has been co-directing a similar club at the Edgewood School for seven years, Frechette founded the Cross Drama club this fall.
Now she and 19 students actors, singers, and dancers, including her daughter, freshman Julianne, are mounting Once On This Island, a rousing musical fairy tale that’s as a mix between Romeo and Juliet and The Little Mermaid.
Or as one of the young actors put it: The play is like the Little Mermaid without the mermaid. And instead of the rivalry between sea and land, make it the peasants versus the French aristocracy on a Caribbean island.
The students will perform the play in the Cross auditorium on Thursday and Friday beginning at 7 p.m..
A labor of love and deftly managed chaos unfolded at Tuesday’s first dress rehearsal as Frechette did it all: director, music director, sound supervisor, costume designer and sash adjuster.
A15-year veteran third-grade teacher in Milford with all that performance background, Frechette is working as a parent volunteer, a super volunteer. That’s the way the theater is.
Her husband, an architect, built a large magical bed for the set. Jennifer Frechette picks up and takes home many of the actors after the four-times-a week, often four-hour rehearsals.
As the young actors, almost all Cross students and many on the stage for the first time, donned their costumes, Frechette taped microphones to kids’ cheeks to amplify their calypso numbers. She adjusted skirts and tunics that she had either sewn herself or borrowed from the New England Ballet, where she has danced in many productions. She cued her friend in the tech booth, Cross photography teacher Samara Vaiuso, who is helping with the lights. And she cued the musicians that she has hired with money out of her own pocket. Frechette estimated she has contributed about $1,000.
She expressed gratitude to Cross Principal Peggy Moore and Nilda Morales, the supervisor of the school system’s arts programs, for supporting the project.
Since it’s the theater where the magic and the beauty are preceded often by actors with colds, absent musicians, and in the case of Once on This Island, even a Hurricane named Sandy that played havoc with the early scheduling in October, until it all seemed to be coming together.
On Tuesday at 6:15, the run-through was ready to begin and the lights were down. Frechette noticed the young actor Carlos Diaz, who plays the male lead Daniel Beauxhomme, supine at the scene of a car wreck and about to be rescued by TiMoune.
Problem: He was in the wrong spot, a location that would confuse the entry of the peasant chorus.
She examined several of the taped “x”-s and other position markings on the shiny proscenium stage. “Who moved Daniel’s head?” Frechette called out to the young thespians.
The proper adjustment made, the rehearsal began. Click on the play arrow at the top of the story for a sample of “Pray,” a foot-tapping number in which a chorus tells TiMoune she may be different, having herself been saved from a flood, but she has to stay in her peasant class and not fall in love with this rich boy Daniel, whom she has rescued.
There’s a lot to think about in this play, which debuted on Broadway in 1990. It uses a story-telling frame and the actors have multiple roles and often step into the tales they relate about class and mobility, and about following the beat of your own drummer despite contrary choruses.
Another one of her principal aims is that, while she’s using the uncut 1990 Broadway script, she has re-alloted speeches so that each of the 19 actors, not just the leads, have their moment.
Frechette said she chose play, which is set in the French Antilles and based on a novel by Trinidad-born American writer Rosa Guy, not only because it can be produced with minimal props, a back-drop and ten 18 by 18-inch blocks. She also chose the play because beneath the catchy songs, the issues are meaty and the kids are learning and growing in their roles.
Even though she’s doing the choreography, voice coaching, and everything else almost singlehandedly, Frechette said that she hasn’t skimped either on her one-on-one consultations with the student actors about their characters. That is her favorite part of the process.
She cited freshman Jordan Lampo who has particularly grown in her role as Andrea, the wealthy woman engaged to Daniel.
“She hardly acts like a freshman,” said Frechette.
In a ball scene with Daniel, the two dance. He’s thinking about this peasant girl TiMoune, whom he’s forbidden almost by a family curse from marrying. She knows he’s had other mistresses, but something’s different about this one.
Before the play is over, Carlos will play himself (that is Daniel), but also his own child. “We act as storytellers and we enter into the character and then pull out,” he said.
Meanwhile, Frechette is auditioning for a part herself with this play. To really make future productions work, she said, she thinks she needs to be teaching not in Milford but at Cross: “If they’d open up a theater arts position [at Cross], I’d take it in a heartbeat.”