World-premier musical set in 1908 Blaine hits Mount Baker Theatre

Longtime Blaine arts supporter Sandy Wolf says her new musical, “Marina,” which opens Thursday, May 21, for a three-day run at Mount Baker Theatre, was a 15-year process that included lots of research and much rewriting after workshopping the show in Los Angeles with the Academy for New Music Theatre and at the New York Theatre Festival.

Wolf acknowledges that her husband Bruce’s unexpected death in December left her “very sad” and for awhile she stopped working on the script. But, she says, she knows he loved the story; in fact, he was working on the set the day he died.

“I know he would be 100 percent behind what we are doing now to get the show on stage,” she says.

What’s unique about the show is that it’s set in Blaine in 1908 and is historically based, but with fictional characters.

“No other musical has illuminated Whatcom County’s history in this way,” she says.

The heroine has lost her young son. Her dramatic arc centers on her recovery from grief and her discovery of how to love again.

Racial prejudice, labor union and immigrant labor conflicts, alcohol abuse and the role of temperance women, and the mistreatment of the Chinese following completion of the transcontinental railroad and the installation of many “iron Chinks” — a derogatory term applied to a machine that replaced the work of Chinese laborers who gutted and trimmed salmon — are all part of the story.

Sehome High School graduate Justin Melland, who has had enormous success composing film scores in Los Angeles since his years at UCLA, wrote the score for the show.

“Justin’s wonderful music will be a unique surprise to locals who have known his family for years,” says Wolf.

And, she says, director Mark Kuntz’ set will surprise audiences. Ryan Dudenbostel, director of Western Washington University’s orchestral studies, conducts the full orchestra, and Mark Kuntz’ wife, Pam Kuntz, choreographed the show.

“Kuntz’s design of the cannery, the cabaret that Marina —the title character played by Seattle actress Katherine Strohmaier — owns and manages, the boardwalk above her place, and the deck of the Star of Bengal, will do credit to Mount Baker Theatre, Wolf says.

Steve Lyons, producing director for Bellingham TheatreWorks, which is staging the production, says Wolf has been sharing drafts of the play with Kuntz for more than 10 years.

“Certainly most of the ‘process’ of creating this show was Sandy’s relentless drive to make this happen,” Lyons says. “Writing a play is difficult. Writing a musical is almost impossible. Who will be the composer? How will you collaborate? Will you write the lyrics together? Where do you slip in a song? How does the song move the story forward?”

And then, Lyons says, once you have spent literally years slogging through draft after draft, revising, holding readings, editing out songs, introducing new song, comes the question: “Who in the world will produce this thing?”

The show has a cast of 25, a crew of 25, and an orchestra of about 15. Lyon says that as with many theater productions, money was a major hurdle.

“Before we even began the production process, Sandy had already spent tens of thousands of dollars on readings and paying the composer and paying for music production,” he says.

The budget for producing the musical is nearly $80,000, Lyons says.

Because Bellingham TheatreWorks wants to make theater accessible to all, ticket prices are low, $10 to $24.

So, says Lyons, ticket sales will probably cover about $20,000, leaving about $60,000 for the company to come up with. Lyons says Wolf is well-loved and people have been generous supporting her.

Also, the company received a $5,000 grant from Whatcom Community Foundation.

“The more that people buy tickets and attend ‘Marina,’ the greater the possibility that we can do this again,” he says.