James Michener was a smart guy.
The author of more than 40 books, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, known for his meticulous research and sprawling, epic novels covering the lives of many generations of people living in specific, realistically rendered locales — Hawaii, Alaska, Texas, Poland, etc. — Michener straddled the line between critically adored prose and popular literature like few others.
He also wrote many nonfiction works, including a biting critique of the United States’ Electoral College system.
But perhaps his most famous story is actually best remembered for the story it inspired.
“Tales of the South Pacific,” a Pulitzer-winning collection of sequentially related short stories based on Michener’s own experiences while he was stationed as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Islands during World War II, is today even better known, in musical form, as simply “South Pacific.”
Composed by Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, it premiered in 1949 on Broadway and was an immediate hit, running for 1,925 performances. It actually became the second-longest running Broadway musical until then — behind Rodgers and Hammerstein’s own earlier work “Oklahoma!” — and has remained popular with audiences around the world since.
Ovation! Performing Arts Northwest is bringing their rendition of the patriotic production to the Bainbridge High School theater from Friday, Dec. 1 through Sunday, Dec. 17.
The cast is led by returning Ovation! favorite Myriah Reidel, playing the southern, cockeyed optimist, Nellie Forbush. Dan Engelhard portrays the charming and mysterious Frenchman Emile DeBeque. Supporting cast includes Jack Dearth as Lieutenant Cable, Giselle Vincent as Bloody Mary, Ross Eide as Luther Billis and Charity Munson as Liat.
Tickets — $22 for adults, $19 for seniors, students and military, and $15 for youths — can be purchased at www.ovationmtb.com or by calling 1-800-838-3006. Tickets are also available at the door for all performances as available.
Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1-2, Dec. 8-9, Dec. 15-16, and 3 p.m. matinées are Dec. 3, 10 and 17.
The theater is located at Bainbridge High School (9330 NE High School Road).
The Tony Award-winning musical is directed by Ron Milton, with musical direction by Reece Suave, and will be presented with a live orchestra.
Set against the beautiful backdrop of an island paradise during World War II, parallel romances are threatened by prejudice and war in this story of love, loyalty and duty.
Nellie, a spunky, southern nurse, falls in love with Emile, an older French plantation owner. Nellie discovers the mother of Emile’s children was an island native. Plagued by the prejudices she was raised with, Nellie rejects Emile’s proposal of marriage.
Meanwhile, the winsome Lt. Joe Cable struggles with similar prejudice as he fights to distance himself from the innocent Tonkinese girl he’s fallen in love with.
Emile is recruited to join Joe on a dangerous mission, and through the horrors of war and the harsh lessons of sacrifice, learns ultimately that life is too short to forfeit happiness.
Though not specifically a Christmastime story, the director said “South Pacific” is an ideal holiday show for the messages and values it seeks to impart — minus much schmaltz.
“It’s a great celebration of what people can do when they really get together,” Milton said. “At the same time, on the flip side, it deals with something that’s still with us today and that’s prejudice and ethnic conflict.”
And, of course, the music is great.
“I love the show,” Milton said. “The music is lush. When you hear the music, the motifs that are sprinkled throughout it stick in your brain. It’s very hummable. All the songs are hummable.
“It’s a lovely show from the golden age of musicals.”
Costuming — with so many characters donning uniforms of one sort or another — was a special area of concern in this show, Milton explained.
“This is a big military area,” he said. “And even people in the show were going, ‘That’s not quite right.’ I said, ‘We’re doing a facsimile.’ You can’t find some of this stuff. But we got a lot of it.
“Some of the people in the show, three or four of them are military and some of them dug into their closets,” he added. “That was fun. They brought insignia off their own uniforms and some hats and stuff from friends.”
Among the headliners, only Jack Dearth is a totally fresh face among a cast of many Ovation! returners.
“He’s from the Seattle area,” Milton said. “He just showed up and auditioned and he looks spanky good in his uniform. He’s the right age. It’s really hard to get 30-year-old tenors over here on this side of the water.
“He’s very, very good. He worked hard on the part and brings a lot of sympathy to the character and a lot of realism.”
“South Pacific” marks Milton’s return to the Ovation! helm, having taken a backseat during the group’s previous production in the wake of health problems. It therefore, he said, had a special place in his heart already.
“It was important for me to do something I loved,” he said. “This is kind of like a present that keeps opening itself up that I’m giving to the audience.”