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.
- Scott Elmquist
- “South Pacific” director Chase Kniffen works with the production crew while the set starts taking shape. The 30-year-old had his first big theater experience as a 13-year-old on Broadway, where he played John in “Peter Pan.”
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.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Director Kniffen sits in on a fitting for actor Alexander Sapp, right, with costume designer Sue Griffin and costumer Ruth Hedberg.
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.
- Ash Daniel
- During a dress rehearsal last week, cast members await their call outside the dressing rooms.
Like Maria in “The Sound of Music” — which was the first role Cabaj played in Richmond — the actress seems nearly too perfect. She seems to radiate sunshine from every pore, and she’s unfailingly nice in that stereotypical Canadian way.
She and her castmates have gathered around a long table for a read-through of the script. It’s June 2, four and a half weeks from opening, and this is the first time the whole cast has been together. Some are newcomers to “South Pacific” while others have performed the show multiple times. After opening remarks from Miller, company managing director Phil Whiteway, and technical directors, Kniffen takes the reins.
“When Rodgers and Hammerstein started writing this, it was their dream of what this country could be post-World War II,” he says before referencing the musical’s racial theme and the recent high-profile incidents between police and their communities.
Kniffen says the show’s characters Nellie and Lt. Cable are both faced with the questions of racial tolerance, before comically adding, “And the one who makes the wrong choice dies.”
The discussion then turns to everything he wants the cast to keep in mind throughout the performance. Current civil rights issues, the transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner, and Nellie as a feminist hero are all mentioned before the cast launches into its reading.
- Scott Elmquist
- Branch Fields, who plays Frenchman Emile de Becque, fills the theater with his sonorous baritone.
Already you catch a glimpse of what the actors have in mind to bring their characters to life. Branch Fields, who plays Emile, has a deep, French-accented voice down to a Pepe le Pew purr, and Cabaj has added a Southern lilt to hers. In the comic role of Seabee Luther Billis, James Stover has amped up his voice to cartoonish heights.
For Fields, a handsome opera singer who spent his teenage years in Williamsburg, it’s his eighth production of “South Pacific.” That includes being a standby for Emile in the Lincoln Center revival. Amy Jo Phillips, who plays the entrepreneurial island native Bloody Mary, estimates that this is her 12th time in the role. Her first production starred Robert Goulet.
Though the performers are singing at quarter volume during this read-through, chills seem to run through the room when the men launch into “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.”
“It still matters, it still resonates,” Phillips says of the show a few weeks later. “The big issues of course are love, personal growth and racial tensions — none of those have changed, unfortunately, in all these years. We are still dealing with the same issues.”
After months of blood, sweat and coffee, Kniffen is swaying his hips back and forth toward the audience.
While Dacus plays the piano, Kniffen is working out exactly how he wants his actors to hula dance. Either that, or he’s just having fun. Testing out his own ideas is something he’s known for — he wouldn’t ask an actor to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Potentially perilous activities, such as jumping onto a chair or standing on a moving staircase, are actions for which he willingly plays guinea pig.
In this show, he even offers to test the working shower in “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” for Cabaj, but she waves him off. The technical crew was attempting to figure out how to raise the water temperature, and the cold deluge that ensued sent Cabaj out with a yelp and into a hug with Kniffen, getting him wet anyway.
Two days after the first read-through, the set is starting to shape up with faux sandbars built on the sides and back of the stage. Folks on the technical side have been at work for weeks; it’s the actors who are the new ones here.
On this day the cast is working on scene between the Seabees and Phillips’ Bloody Mary. With coffee in hand and a script sitting on a music stand, Kniffen is onstage and just as animated as his actors. When Phillips gives actor Jamari Johnson Williams a playful nudge, Williams improvises a bit where he falls backward off a sand dune. Kniffen likes the bit, and it makes it into the show.
“He isn’t a dictator. He loves hearing the ideas,” says Wendy Vandergrift, whom Kniffen has referred to as his right hand. “He’s great. He’s very easy to work with.”
Vandergrift has been with the company for 15 years, and ensures that all elements of design, direction and production run smoothly. Though she’s Virginia Rep’s production manager, she’s more frequently referred to as “a Wendy,” a role that supersedes her actual title. Should one of the company’s many shows hit a snag somewhere, Vandergrift is the one who makes sure everything gets back on track.
For this show, one such problem concerned bamboo. While enough bamboo was ordered to cover constructing legs — those long, thin curtains that frame the stage past the proscenium arch — there wasn’t enough to cover the rest of the show’s various set pieces.
Maymont Park came to the rescue, allowing the company’s technical crew to take chain saws to some of its bamboo thickets. Water from a recent rain had collected atop the bamboo leaves, ensuring that everyone involved was soaked by the end of the harvest.
Then the problem became the two different colors of bamboo. Dried bamboo, like the kind that had arrived from California, is yellow. The fresh bamboo is green, meaning they must either paint all the bamboo to match or figure out which set pieces to leave green.
They opt for the latter. When the Seabees construct a stage for the Thanksgiving Follies show, for example, it makes sense that the bamboo would still be green, as the musical’s characters would have recently chopped it down.
- Ash Daniel
- Paul Major, who plays Stewpot, banters with fellow Seabees, played by Jamari Johnson Williams and Durron Marquis Tyre.
If this sounds like a bit over-the-top for such a detail, keep in mind that Virginia Rep is the largest and most professional theater company in town. It operates four stages in three locations, and including its partnership with Cadence Theatre Company, will locally produce 17 plays and musicals this coming season. The company also will send 12 touring children’s shows across the country.
Throughout the process, choreographer Brad Willcuts has been bouncing between Richmond and New York, where he’s serving as assistant fight director for the Broadway musical “Amazing Grace.” For “South Pacific,” he’s aiming for choreography that seems to organically come from the performers. He’s assisted by Rebecca Frost Mayer, who runs things when Willcuts is out of town.
To get the lighting in place for each scene, the actors will spend 16 dedicated hours onstage, pausing every few seconds so lights will focus on the right spot at the right level. The addition of the 10-member orchestra is the last step, added in the final week of rehearsals.
Further evidence of the company’s commitment to professionalism can be found across the alley from the November Theatre, at a space referred to by its address of “One-Ten,” or simply “next door.” Aside from a small workspace behind Virginia Rep’s Willow Lawn location, this is where most of the company’s sets are built.
If you need to paint a huge backdrop depicting the volcanic island of Bali Ha’i, this is the place to do it. One upper floor houses an estimated 5,000 costumes that the company has purchased or constructed through the years. The basement is filled floor to ceiling with stacked furniture. Props are housed on yet another floor. This is the result of decades of work, most of it overseen by Miller and Whiteway.
In 1953, six actors purchased Hanover Tavern across the highway from that county’s courthouse and started Barksdale Theatre. Separately, Miller and Whiteway founded Theatre IV in 1975, initially performing shows from the trunk of their car. The companies joined forces in 2001, and officially merged three years ago to create the juggernaut of Virginia Repertory Theatre. Now it’s planning a national search for Miller’s replacement.
- Ash Daniel
- Kniffen watches the first full rehearsal with cast and orchestra with communications director Susan Davenport, the theater’s managing director, Phil Whiteway, and stage manager Rick Brandt.
It’s a week and a half before the June 26 opening, and Kniffen is going a million miles a minute. He seems a little stressed, but happy in a delirious way. Walking quickly through the theater, he cracks jokes as fast as he can spit them out.
Today’s to-do list: shop for additional props and furniture, edit a television commercial, work on lighting and program a keyboard for the show’s piano conductor. Oh, and he has a rehearsal this evening.
“It’s just running around and not quite finishing anything, but trying to get everything going,” Kniffen says. “I’m tired. It’s 12-hour days, every day. I got home the other night at 9:30 on a Monday and went ‘Oh, it’s a night off.’”
Long days are common in the theater, and many of the show’s cast members rehearse all evening after working their day jobs. At this point, Kniffen says, the show is in fairly good shape.
“It’s kind of strange almost,” he says. “It’s because the actors are on top of their game. Most of the principals came in almost completely off-book” — meaning they’ve memorized their lines.
When asked about who might succeed Miller as artistic director, Kniffen answers carefully.
“It’s going to be an interesting two or three years of transition, and anytime you have someone like Bruce who has built this incredible thing step aside, there’s going to be a little shaky ground,” he says. “Whomever the person is, I think it’s a great opportunity to take the next step forward to expand the theater’s scope and national recognition and I hope to be involved. How about that?” he says, laughing.
“Bruce and Phil have been here forever, and have built this truly amazing thing. When we did ‘Color Purple,’ it was truly the work of 40 years to get to that point. It’s tons of years of work. It’s going to be an interesting time.”
- Ash Daniel
- Fields and Cabaj as Emile and Nellie in the show’s first scene.
It’s opening night, and the crowd is dressed to the nines. Parked outside of the November Theatre is 1942 Packard from World War II and people are snapping photos.
Some World War II veterans are in attendance, the result of Virginia Rep working with the Virginia War Memorial to ensure that that all World War II veterans could see the show free.
After months of focused effort, the house lights go down and the curtain goes up. S
“South Pacific” plays through Aug. 9 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For information, call 282-2620 or visit va-rep.org.