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Saint John's second Marco Polo is worthy of the first

Fred Hazel

   It was magic. From the moment the Imperial Theatre curtain rose on Opera N.B.'s production of The Marco Polo, audiences were enchantingly transported to another time, another world. And the spell remained unbroken for the next two hours.
    Theatrical performances are supposed to be able to do that, but they seldom succeed to the degree seen on our Saint John stage last weekend. I realize that reviews can be subjective and this is simply my opinion. But I thought this original folk opera, conceived, written and staged in Saint John was a knockout, a worldclass dazzler.
    We saw silhouettes in a waterfront setting, with three big sails eerily capturing the sense of the Saint John-built lumber freighter which converted to one of the better passenger ships of the mid-19th Century and earned its reputation as "the fastest sailing ship in the world." The sounds of gulls and waves set the mood, as an onstage fog gradually dissipated and stunningly evocative seascapes were projected on to those three sails. The voice-over narrative by R.H. Thomson struck just the right note, conjuring up images of the sea and sea-faring and shipbuilding and emigration.
   And then came the pipes - a highland bagpipe, an Irish elbow-pumped uillean pipe and composer Jim Stewart's own tin whistle - a haunting, eerie sensation that sent my Celtic blood racing. This was eyemisting, goose-bump good theatre.
   Jim Stewart, who's a disarmingly modest musician and composer, says he likes the pipes and whistles: "They can be so expressive, I can hear people, crying, human voices, the sound of the sea."
   Well, he got that right. That's exactly what I was hearing and seeing and feeling, listening to this powerfully moving performance.
   The Marco Polo's an excit ing adventure story, starting in Saint John where the big vessel foundered at her Marsh Creek launching and joined the overseas freight trade as an "Ugly Duckling." Her builder, Irish-born James Smith sold her to another Irishman, Paddy Magee, who persuaded the Black Ball Line that she could become a valuable passenger ship for the floods of emigrants beginning to leave the British Isles. Under the urgings of driving Captain James Nichol "Bully" Forbes, she broke all records of the day, sailing from Liverpool to Melbourne, Australia in 68 days. By this time, she had been fitted with interiors luxurious by the standards of the day, and was carrying up to 900 passengers a voyage.
   Getting the sweep and scope of these real historical events across was a remarkable feat of creativity. Those stylized sails, flashing luminous scenes of past and present, helped cast the spell. Imperial manager Peter Smith teamed with Alan Edwards and John .Murphy on the lighting and decorating, the painting and construction by David Sadler, the Imperial's Malcolm Boyce handling the highly-effective sound.
   There wasn't a piece out of place in this production. You could see your grandfather's face flashing up on those dazzling sail-screens, while a powerful 17-member instrumental ensemble, augmented by five principal singers, brought alive the sad emigrant farewells, the storms and calms at sea, the rollicking sea shanties, with Jim Stewart's original The Marco Polo Shanty and We Built This Old Ship stitching the story together.
   This was billed as a folk opera, but such a well-crafted one that every number was a highlight. Whether it was Theresa Patterson's poignant Sarah's Farewell; Gordon Bok's Sailing Towards The Sun and the group's We Built This Old Ship; Michael Boyer's Pea Soup Calamity, John Frank's Ends Of The Earth and his remarkable musical rendition of an actual passenger's diary; John Murphy's lively leading of The Marco Polo Shanty, and his concertina virtuosity in an old Welsh shanty, everything blended. And the entire cast - including Saint John's String Quartet and the other onstage orchestra members from a harpist to a percussionist - seemed remarkably focused in character throughout the entire performance.
   Mr. Stewart said he and coproducer and director Gary Chase - who also performed onstage - "had a great time working with this ensemble, a delightful blend of folk, classic and rock musicians, there were no ego problems, they were all part of a great team. An example? Allan Edwards did a superb job with those photos you saw on the sails. He was so dedicated. That sunrise sequence on one of the back-round scenes he actually filmed at Cavendish, P.E.J. right over the spot where the old Marco Polo was eventually beached and sunk."
   If you missed the three Saint John performances, consult your travel agent about a trip to Russia in 2004. (Unless Opera N.B.'s going to do it again here.) This show has been selected by the MusicaRussia Canada Foundation for staging in Moscow in two years' time. Mr. Stewart hopes members of the original cast can make it. Saint John can take pride in its second Marco Polo. Now, if we can just get something going on Barry Ogden's replica project ...
   Fred Hazel is a retired editor-in-chief of this newspaper. His column appears on Friday.

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