Staging a production of “South Pacific” comes with two distinct historical challenges. The setting, the Pacific Campaign in World War II, stems from Pulitzer Prize material from James A. Michener, and the music by Rodgers and Hammerstein is about as iconic as it gets in musical theater.
Tyler Krieg, director of the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre production of “South Pacific,” wanted to make sure his show got aspects right. So he hit the books and studied many aspects of the war.
“I tried to come at the show from the most honest place in whatever way I could,” Krieg said. “I wanted to make sure any kind of military things we did were accurate, because it was important to me to be respectful of the time. It was a deeper dive than what I expected it to be.”
Krieg said his process helped him avoid rehashing things he’s seen in other productions of “South Pacific.”
“When I start to think about a project … I get the text and go back into the roots of what makes the piece special in the score and the script, and then I try to design a show around that,” Krieg said.
CST’s “South Pacific” continues through July 30 at the Salvation Army Kroc Center Theatre in Coeur d’Alene.
“South Pacific” premiered in 1949 on Broadway and was an immediate success, going on to win its own Pulitzer Prize as well as 10 Tony Awards. The show has been revived throughout the years with its lineup of familiar classics, including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’I” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.”
The show follows two parallel love stories threatened by both the war and nature of prejudice. In one story, an American nurse named Nellie falls in love with a middle-age French plantation owner named Emile, but she struggles to accept his mixed-race children from a previous relationship. The social commentary sparked controversy in its initial run and has continued to stay relevant over the decades.
“It is both a piece of the time but also a piece that reflects our lives now,” Krieg said. “There are moments in the show that are racially charged, but to put them in a softer, rose colored light wouldn’t be doing them justice. (Depicting them) shows how far we’ve come with those things, but also how far we still have to go.”
Brandon Michael, who plays Emile in the production, also dove deep into the historical roots of his fictionalized character and made great efforts to avoid French caricature.
“You don’t just want to have the generic French accent … so I centered it into a geographical region,” Michael said.
Michael, who played King Triton in last year’s CST production of “The Little Mermaid,” said he’s not the traditional “type” to play Emile.
“He’s typically played by a 6-foot-5 booming bass voice,” Michael said. “I’m not a super imposing figure onstage, so I approach him from a more subdued, emotional perspective than a lot of Emiles I’ve seen. I play him as someone who has felt a lot of pain and loss and is finally coming out of a dark period… Nellie is the respite of his life.”
Michael praised his co-star, Whitney Miller, for also bringing a unique energy to the role of Nellie.
“Whitney has the ability to portray naiveite and sweetness and charm while still having this backbone of being more worldly,” Michael said.
CST’s production includes an additional song featuring Nellie that didn’t make the original Broadway show. The song, “My Girl Back Home,” a duet between Nellie and a young Marine named Cable, was later featured in the 1958 film and restored for the 2002 London revival production.
“It gives their relationship more depth, whereas in other versions it tends to be less flushed out,” Krieg said.
Michael said the appeal and challenge of “South Pacific” is figuring out how to embody so many classic tunes.
“With all these songs, the minute you hear them you know the tune and you realize you’ve been singing them your entire life,” Michael said. “They are so famous and ingrained in the collected psyche.”
That history has driven Michael to bring his character to life for audiences.
“Emile is one of the greatest roles in musical theater – he gets to sing some of the greatest songs and the scene work is very moving,” he said.