Yesterday, December seventh, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.
The first line of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “infamy speech” calls upon Congress to declare war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And it is with this speech, projected on a backdrop of burlap and bamboo, that Virginia Repertory Theatre opens its production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.”
Transporting audiences back to the days of Adolf Hitler on a budget of $400,000, “South Pacific” may well be the flashiest show of Richmond’s theater season.
A Virginia Rep main-stage musical is the closest a locally produced show gets to Broadway. For Chase Kniffen, the theater’s 30-year-old associate artistic director, it means weeks of nonstop 12-hour workdays. It means making millions of decisions, large and small, to present a unified vision. It means coordinating with 23 cast members, 10 crew members, 10 musicians and eight additional production staff.
At some level, it means trying to outdo his production of “The Color Purple” last year, a massive success by any measure. It also means a heck of a lot of bamboo.
In May, Virginia Rep announced that its longtime artistic director, Bruce Miller, will gradually step down from his position — possibly, at least from an outsider’s point of view, paving the way for Kniffen to step up. In that sense, the success of “South Pacific” could serve as another notch in Kniffen’s belt.
Style spent months following Virginia Rep’s cast, crew and creative people to see how they bring a full-blown musical to life.
It’s one of those days in February where your eyes can’t help but water from the cold. The sidewalks are iced over, with remnants of snow on the ground. The high temperature is just shy of 29 degrees.
Over Reubens at Perly’s, Kniffen discusses some of the issues he foresees working through in the months ahead, including how to make a 1949 musical with a message of racial tolerance feel relevant.
Taking place on a Pacific island during the war, the story centers on nurse Nellie Forbush and her love for French plantation owner Emile de Becque. Emile has mixed-race children from a previous marriage, and as he’s sucked into the war, Nellie must confront her beliefs on race.
When the musical was created by Broadway legends Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, the war was still present in the public mind, and the musical’s message of racial tolerance was nothing short of radical.
But in the era of President Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin, Ferguson — and now Baltimore, Texas and Charleston — how do you adapt a 66-year-old work to seem relevant? It’s just one piece of the puzzle its director will grapple with.
A native of Richmond, Kniffen’s big break came at age 13, when he was cast as John in “Peter Pan” on Broadway. By the time Kniffen was 19, Miller entrusted him to direct his first show, and he’s since become known for helming Virginia Rep’s big musicals.
For “South Pacific,” he’s discussed his vision with set designer Brian Prather, and actress Stacey Cabaj has been pre-cast as Nellie. When asked if he’s worried about the show’s length — the 1958 film version moves at a sluggish pace — Kniffen confidently fires back, “Oh, it’s going to move.”
By the middle of April, the weather is pleasant enough to picnic. But inside the rehearsal room of the November Theatre on Broad Street, the 10 actresses assembled have reason to sweat. They’re auditioning, with all the inherent drama and nervousness that comes with the process.
But everyone is professional, at least in the rehearsal room. The women take turns singing “A Wonderful Guy.” After following some choreography, the women are thanked for their time and asked to step outside. Kniffen’s tone is pleasant, but without emotion. Whatever decision is made, it seems to say, it’s nothing personal.
Once the actresses leave, Kniffen discusses what they bring to the table with choreographer Brad Willcuts, vocal supervisor Stephen Rudlin and musical director Sandy Dacus. Who had trouble with the high notes? Which casting combination will work best? Who would they like to see as a sexy nurse? Who would work as a more bookish one?
Speaking of casting, Kniffen mentions his decision to integrate the Seabees, the Navy construction workers who serve as the male chorus in the show. In the Lincoln Center’s 2008 revival of “South Pacific,” the production segregated the Seabees to underscore the musical’s message about race. Through his research, Kniffen says, he found that some Seabee units integrated near the end of the war. The decision also helps keep the cast small, as they won’t need two separate Seabee units.
In the meantime, costume designer Sue Griffin has been pulling together military garb and meeting with Virginia War Memorial curator Jesse Smith for guidance. She’s shown Smith some items she already purchased.
“He pointed to some that were bright olive green, and I guess that automatically says they’re from the Vietnam or Korean war,” says Griffin, who has 35 years of experience in costuming. Rather than chuck the items, she re-colored them a more washed-out green to be passible from the distance of the stage. “It even gets down to the belts,” she says. “You have to get the right belts. We even made spats for everybody.”
For the women, Griffin is appreciative of how the resurgence of pin-up culture has led to the reproduction and availability of vintage wear.
“Ten years ago, there was virtually none,” Griffin says. “If you wanted something like the 1940s, you could buy something like that, but it was 60 years old and falling apart.