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The In-Betweeners

Director Tyler Krieg seizes on the depth, openness and 'in-between' quality of South Pacific

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Iconic roles: Whitney Miller plays Nellie Forbush, while Brandon Michael inhabits Emile de Becque.
  • Iconic roles: Whitney Miller plays Nellie Forbush, while Brandon Michael inhabits Emile de Becque.

When South Pacific opened on Broadway in April 1949, the wounds of World War II were still quite raw. Peace had only been formalized less than four years earlier, and the Geneva Conventions were still four months away from being ratified.

Yet audiences of that era were ready for everything South Pacific had to offer, even (or especially) its overt challenge of racial prejudice. They responded — gushingly, rapturously — to Rodgers and Hammerstein's wartime musical, itself based on a short-story collection by James Michener. The show would quickly go on to experience almost legendary box-office success. When leads Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza missed performances, tickets returned by disappointed patrons were immediately resold to the hopeful buyers who crowded the lobby of the Majestic Theatre — proof that the allure of South Pacific didn't reside in its star power alone.

Tyler Krieg says South Pacific's appeal comes not only from its parallel love stories but also its unique "depth," and that's precisely why Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre chose it to round out this season's lineup alongside the kid-oriented Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the light jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet.

As the show's director, Krieg says he's looking to explore that depth, and honesty is the best way to do that.

"The Golden Age in musical theater is not necessarily the Golden Age in American history," he laughs. "There's a note at the beginning of the script that alludes to [the idea that] as we get further away from the war and the atrocities that went with it, it gets a little easier to forget things. What I'm focusing on with my actors and my design team is that we tell the story as honestly as possible — that is to say, not leaving out any of the more controversial stuff. ... This show should make you a little uncomfortable, even if it's really deep down."

Whereas Chitty had a fantastic flying car as its scenic centerpiece, Krieg is looking to create a "sense of space and openness" on the Polynesian island where South Pacific is set.

"In this show, we're trying to show the openness of the beach in a way that is reflective of how beautiful the South Pacific is, how lush it can be," he says "And we're definitely being true to the costumes of the time: period swimsuits, the Marine and Navy uniforms. All of that is as honest as we can get it."

That approach even extends to the cast. Krieg describes them as "honest, open-hearted people" who've been able to channel the personalities of their characters.

"I'm really lucky in the cast that we have — people like Tim Suenkel, who is just the kindest individual in the world and really brings a new, fresh breath to [Lieutenant Joseph] Cable," Krieg says. As for Brandon Michael, who plays widowed French plantation owner Emile de Becque: "People will just fall in love. His voice is gorgeous."

Whitney Miller, who hails from Montana in real life, is playing Arkansas-born nurse Nellie Forbush.

"She's the perfect Nellie, simply because Nellie is not your normal heroine. She has this silly sense about her. She's innocent but also curious, beautiful but doesn't know she's beautiful."

And though the popularity of South Pacific has made it a fixture of musical repertoire, Krieg says that he and his cast have been finding novelty in the familiar. For example, "My Girl Back Home," a song that was cut from the original Broadway production, has been restored to bring the production in line with the 2002 London revival.

Seabee Luther Billis, played by Casey Raiha in this production, has a little more nuance too.

"The character of Billis can be construed as a villain or a pest. I think he's really one of the heroes of the show, and he doesn't get enough credit for who he is," Krieg says, noting that even now, nearly 70 years later, there are still aspects of the show worth unpacking.

"On the first day of rehearsal, I told my actors that South Pacific has this sense of being an in-between place. You never see them end the war. They're always waiting for something to happen. And it's important to note that, while they're doing that, all this beautiful stuff happens around them anyway, whether they like it or not," he says. "That's a really good reflection of life in general — to make things happen when you thought you were just waiting to go on to something better." ♦

South Pacific • July 13-30 • Wed-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • $27-$49 • Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre • The Kroc Center, 1765 West Golf Course Rd. • cdasummertheatre.com • (208) 660-2958