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Tony winners stage musical on Maine island

Tony and Obie award winner John Wulp is staging the world premiere of “Red Eye of Love” inside a community center on picturesque North Haven, Maine.

Greta Rybus for The Boston Globe

Tony and Obie award winner John Wulp is staging the world premiere of “Red Eye of Love” inside a community center on picturesque North Haven, Maine.

North Haven, Maine.

Greta Rybus for the Boston Globe

North Haven, Maine.

They’ve scheduled the matinees so that people from the mainland can make the 3:45 boat home.

If you want to see this weekend’s world premiere of the musical “Red Eye of Love,” featuring a wealth of Broadway talent, you’ll have to go to Rockland, Maine, and take one of three daily ferries to North Haven, an island community in Penobscot Bay with a year-round population of 355.

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A full-on professional musical assembled by a couple of Tony Award winners is a first for the 134-seat theater in Waterman’s Community Center, right across from the ferry dock. It’s certainly a big departure from the center’s usual schedule of movies, local theater, visiting speakers, and sold-out performances by the Toughcats, a local rock band.

“Right now I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but it’s going to be fantastic,” said Christie Hallowell, executive director of North Haven Arts & Enrichment, which runs the center.

You could also fly in to see the show, although Hallowell says, “I wouldn’t call it an airport. There’s an airstrip.”

As quirky and bucolic and “Northern Exposure-y” as all this sounds, “Red Eye of Love” is the real deal.

Behind the production is 85-year-old writer and producer John Wulp, resident of a neighboring island and part of the North Haven community for two decades. Wulp won an Obie Award for directing Arnold Weinstein’s original “Red Eye” play in New York back in 1961 and won a 1978 Tony as a producer of “Dracula” on Broadway.

On his team are director Ted Sperling, who won a 2005 Tony for orchestrating “The Light in the Piazza,” and composer Sam Davis, who is working on the Broadway-bound “Big Fish.” In the cast are Broadway up-and-comers Andrew Samonsky (“South Pacific”), Betsy Wolfe (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”), and John Treacy Egan (“Nice Work If You Can Get It”).

“Someone did the math, and we’re doing five performances with (134) seats for an island that only has 350 people on it,” Sperling said. “Everybody is going to have to come 2½ times.”

The math is a little off. And in fact, North Haven’s population roughly quadruples in summer, Hallowell said.

“This is sort of the peak of our season,” said Bill Trevaskis, chairman of North Haven’s board of selectmen. Along with some good press lately for one of the island’s inns, “Red Eye” is “adding an extra layer” of activity, which is good for business, he said. “We’re seeing a lot more people than we usually do. Everything’s a little hectic.”

In the way of small towns, Trevaskis is also programs director for the center and he’s running sound for “Red Eye.”

Set in the first half of the 20th century, “Red Eye” follows the love triangle of young idealist Wilmer Flange (Samonsky), salesgirl Selma Chargesse (Wolfe), and the capitalist O.O. Martinas (Egan), who owns a high-rise meat market. The script outlines their shifting business and romantic fortunes through boom times, the Depression, and war, in an absurdist style that owes much to burlesque and old movie melodramas.

“I think it’s a very, very American play,” said Wulp.

“It operates in its own universe,” Sperling said.

Wulp, a painter and writer, saw an early version of Weinstein’s play in a Brooklyn church and thought he should produce it on a real stage at the Living Theatre in Manhattan. He decided to direct too.

“Opening night was a nightmare!” he said, laughing. “The curtain jammed, and then the air conditioning leaked, and the next thing we knew we had this irate man from downstairs who said we were flooding his store and destroying his business, so I spent the whole opening night performance bailing out a pet shop.”

Still, the play ran for more than 100 performances, but that seemed to be the end of it. Twenty or so years later, after considerable professional success, Weinstein and Wulp decided to try to revisit the story and turn it into a musical. They were still working on it when Weinstein died in 2005. Then Sperling, who knew Weinstein, came on board, and eventually Davis was asked to write a new score. There were workshops and rewrites and a demo recording session.

“I’m largely working on this project because of my affection for John and my desire to help him realize this vision that he’s had for all these years,” Sperling said.

Wulp bought a house on the neighboring island of Vinalhaven in 1985 and moved there year-round in 1992, intending mostly to paint. But by 1994 he had agreed to teach theater in North Haven’s K-12 school, where the enrollment tops out around 80. He commuted by boat, but his productions could be surprisingly ambitious. A run of Weinstein’s original “Red Eye” play in 1998 featured backdrop panels painted by Wulp’s old friend Robert Indiana, the artist best known for his iconic LOVE design. After the show, the panels were sold by Christie’s at auction, Wulp said, raising about $250,000 toward the $3 million cost of building Waterman’s Community Center, which opened in 2004.

The center is home to the theater, a busy activity room, and a coffee shop with wi-fi. There’s an art gallery in town where Wulp’s paintings were exhibited earlier this year, and a couple of inns.

“North Haven has been in many families for many years, both year-round and summer families,” Hallowell said. “A lot of people have a very emotional connection to North Haven, and it is an incredibly beautiful place. It is a little different than other places, especially the more modernized the world gets.

“For example, some of the cast and crew of ‘Red Eye’ are quite concerned because their cellphones are not going to work well here,” Hallowell said with a chuckle, “and that’s just how it is.”

A theater on Nantucket, where Wulp lived in the 1960s and ’70s, planned to do both “Dracula” and “Red Eye” this year, and Wulp envisioned a two-island tour for the show.

John Wulp (left) with “Red Eye of Love” cast members Gabriela Garcia, Sam Tanabe, Rashidra Scott, Paul Staroba, and Christian DeMarais.

Greta Rybus for The Boston Globe

John Wulp (left) with “Red Eye of Love” cast members Gabriela Garcia, Sam Tanabe, Rashidra Scott, Paul Staroba, and Christian DeMarais.

But when “Red Eye” fell by the wayside there, Wulp and his North Haven supporters decided to go ahead with its five performances, even though that meant they had to raise more money to cover expenses.

“The initial desire to do [‘Red Eye’] had to do with honoring John, thanking John, and just having another experience of working with John on North Haven,” Hallowell said.

Mind you, Wulp has high standards on the island just as on Broadway.

“He is very demanding and very exacting,” Hallowell said, beginning to laugh. “I have said, ‘John, we don’t want to make everybody crazy trying to make it perfect.’ And he says, ‘Yes, it has to be perfect.’ ”

Thursday and Friday night performances were already sold out earlier this week, and everyone was optimistic about the rest. But Wulp said most of the $140,000 production budget came as contributions from friends, islanders, and businesses.

Most of the cast and crew come from the New York theater world. But 8-year-old Ryan Twombly-Hussey of North Haven plays Wilmer and Selma’s son Bez as a boy. Islanders are doing the sound, running the lights, and taking tickets.

“I’m going to bring my family and have some down time in Maine, which will be lovely,” Sperling said. “It just feels like a good way to do this show, to try it on its feet in front of a friendly audience in a controlled, small setting without the pressures of doing it in New York.”

It will be a memorable weekend for islanders and theater folks alike, but it’s not clear if “Red Eye of Love” will have a life after this weekend. Sperling said he has thoughts of putting on a showcase back in New York to see what kind of support the musical might attract.

“If this play is as good as I think it is, I cannot help but hope that something will happen with it,” Wulp said. “But I have found it physically very difficult working on this show, and if it does move, that’s Ted’s domain.”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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