By Stacee Sledge
Semiahmoo playwright Sandy Wolf is set to bring her play Marina to the Mount Baker Theatre—and it’s been a long, creative climb to get it there.
The play, set in Blaine in 1908, revolves around a heartbroken mother, a love story, rowdy fishermen, fierce union activists, noisy temperance fanatics, and anti-Asian bigotry. It’s a musical drama with serious themes.
Bellingham TheatreWorks will present the world premier, with music composed by Justin Melland, a live orchestra conducted by Ryan Dudenbostel, and choreography by Pam Kuntz.
Seattle actress Katherine Strohmaier plays Marina, who is supported by her long-time friend and piano man Ivory Jack, played by Gary Giles, who travels from Philadelphia to star in the production.
“It’s a typical musical in that it’s primarily a love story,” says Wolf. “But just like South Pacific, the world of the play is what makes it unusual.”
Wolf, age 71, grew up in Bellingham. Watching a performance of Showboat at Bellingham High School when she was in junior high became an important turning point in her life.
“I was forever changed by it,” she says. “I saw that and thought, ‘Oh, someday! Someday I want to do that.’”
She went on to participate in chorus and the drama department at Bellingham High School, her love for musical theatre firmly implanted.
Her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse; Wolf went to the University of Washington and entered a career in medicine. But she never lost her drive for drama.
Her husband’s career took them to Alaska, where they lived for 30 years. Wolf was very active in the Fairbanks theater community and eventually went back to school and got a degree in theatre and a master’s in playwriting.
“I had a wonderful job running the theatre division of a fine arts camp and directing musicals,” she says, smiling at the memories. “I also worked in the theatre department at the University of Alaska.”
She always felt that one day she would write a play of her own. “So I could leave behind one thing that showed all I had learned during my study of the theatre,” she says. “But I didn’t have any idea what to write!”
After Wolf and her husband moved back to Whatcom County, she was inspired to create something to help attract tourists to Blaine.
She originally thought it would be a story about the cannery workers, but soon a far richer history unfolded.
“I found out about the Star of Bengal and all the Chinese conflict, and realized there was the basis for a really good musical here,” she says. “The parallels to today are so interesting—the same fights over immigration, pay for union people, rights for women.”
Wolf began writing 15 years ago. Over the years, she worked with several industry talents to help bring the play from the page to the stage.
Former Bellingham local Justin Melland is now a multiple award winning film composer and songwriter. He and Wolf met, discussed her project, and soon began working together. Melland wrote all the songs for Marina.
“The first song he wrote is the opening of the show and is about people working in the cannery,” Wolf explains. “I was just thrilled with it and asked him how in the world he nailed it so completely. He said, ‘Well, I worked in a fish cannery in Alaska!’”
The duo worked remotely over the Internet and when most of the music was composed, Wolf took the project to a Los Angeles theatre production company for feedback. She reworked the play a bit, and then brought it to London to British theatre director, producer, and writer Julian Woolford for more carefully reading and evaluation.
“There are some big ideas in the show that are from Julian,” Wolf says.
Two years ago, Wolf entered the play into the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it was accepted. “So we went to New York and invited audiences to give us feedback on stage readings. We did a lot of rewriting in New York,” she says. “Those three professional connections had so much to do with the development of the script.”
About six months ago, Wolf read about Bellingham TheatreWorks and its mission to do works of local significance. She emailed artistic director Mark Kuntz, who agreed to produce.
“I knew of his reputation and knew he was really good,” Wolf says. “He’s a superbly experienced stage director and really thinks about the story. It’s been so valuable to have someone with his background see it with a new set of eyes.”
After so many years of preparation, Wolf is excited to see the culmination of her hard work—but the loss of her husband last fall also brings some sadness to the otherwise happy occasion.
“My husband was killed last September in an accident,” she says. “He was my greatest fan and of course I’m wishing he could see this.”
“But,” she continues, “I’m absolutely delighted that it’s going onstage and I think the Mount Baker Theatre is a wonderful venue. It’s a big, fully orchestrated show and needs to be in a big theatre.”
With her talented, experienced cast and crew in place, Wolf feels confident about opening night. “The key people are all excellent. My job is to sit there and be scared to death,” she says with a laugh.
“You feel like you’re stark naked when you write something,” Wolf says. “You’re really letting people look into your soul.”
Marina debuts at the historic Mount Baker Theatre for three nights only, May 21, 22, and 23, with shows at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $10-$24 and are available online or by calling 360-734-6080.