It may be, geographically at least, a small seaside town, but creating an original musical to celebrate White Rock’s history is anything but a small undertaking.
Just ask Peninsula Productions’ artistic director Wendy Bollard, who has been guiding the development of Sea Of Stories, which begins a three-week run starting Aug. 9 at Coast Capital Playhouse.
Co-produced by the City of White Rock, with funding from Heritage Canada as a Canada 150 project, the show combines an original book by playwright/actor Shawn Macdonald and songs by versatile pianist and musical director Dominik Heins.
But the overall shape – and emphasis – of the project has been Bollard’s from day one.
“I have a very clear vision of the story I want to tell,” she said, noting the challenges of making an hour-and-a-half show out of a span of history that could, theoretically, include everything from the dawn of time to 2017.
The framing narrative she and Macdonald have developed offers fictional present-day characters Anita (popular musical theatre player Cathy Wilmot) and her 14-year-old son Jeffrey (Anthony Goncharov, of last year’s Peninsula NextGen youth troupe), who have moved to White Rock to help Anita’s mother, Ellen (Nancy Ebert), transition into a retirement home.
Their situation provides a handy hook for real-life characters and events in White Rock history, including the period of town-building from the early twentieth century to the city’s formal incorporation in 1957, but also – and just as importantly – an exploration of the area’s indigenous culture and the people of the Semiahmoo First Nation.
“Jeffrey’s moved to White Rock but he doesn’t want to live here,” Bollard explained. “He complains that it’s full of old people and there’s nothing to do.”
When he’s assigned a school presentation on the history of White Rock, the reluctant Jeffrey begins to learn more about the city’s past.
“We go back in time and see it through the eyes of Ellen,” Bollard said.
But Jeffrey also discovers more about the history of the area’s indigenous people.
“It was really important to me that the Semiahmoo First Nation be included,” Bollard said, noting the input of Semiahmoo artist Roxanne Charles in developing the show.
“She’s been an amazing collaborator and really helpful – and she’s also making the regalia for the ‘Sea God’ for the show.”
Cast member Sam Bob, a First Nations actor, has also been working with some SFN members to accurately portray the Semiahmoo people, while Chief Harley Chappell has also been consulted about some sections of the script, Bollard said.
“It’s a whole other piece of the story that hasn’t really been told before – it’s a great experience for us, and all the members of the cast to learn about the Semiahmoo First Nation.”
The focus of the later history – as the seaside town of settlers was established and grew – has necessarily been narrowed to eras that presented the maximum opportunity for musical-theatre interpretation, Bollard said.
“We chose two different time periods – the 1914 era of the railway station and the pier and the Thrift family, and the 1957 era of the swim club and the roller rink and the dance hall.”
Helping recreate the eras on stage will be the set, lighting and projection design of Alan Brodie – “he’s one of Canada’s top lighting designers,” Bollard noted.
Casting has had some influence on the development of the show, Bollard added.
When it was known that Wilmot was available, another song was written especially for her, and another was changed so that she could sing it.
“When you have Cathy Wilmot you want to make sure you have her singing,” Bollard said.
Nancy Ebert also makes the most of the role of the acerbic senior, Ellen, she said.
“One of the things I really love about Shawn’s plays is that he eschews the very sweet depiction of the older lady – there are no flies on this gal and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
The cast benefits from some other familiar faces to Peninsula Productions’ audiences, such as Cory Haas (who starred as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps) and Tegan Verheul and Paige Gibbs (seen to great advantage earlier this year as comedically- warring shipmates in the Canadian premiere of Belfast Girls).
Also given a chance to shine in the song- and dance-heavy show (with choreography by Peninsula-raised Keri Minty and costuming by Ines Ortner) are up-and-coming players Miranda Gilbert, Matthew Budd, Jessie Chan, Theo James, Kirsten Kwong and Andrew Wood.
Sea Of Stories runs Aug. 9-26 at Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd.
Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on the weekends. Tickets ($27, $22 seniors and $13 students) are available from 604-536-7535 or from www.peninsulaproductions.org