Alan Muraoka has got street cred — as in “Sesame Street.”
Sure, he’s a fixture on Broadway, playing The Engineer in “Miss Saigon,” Lord Ishido in “Shogun: The Musical,” Iago in “Aladdin” as well as performing in the revival of “The King and I” and “Pacific Overtures.” As an actor, though, he is best known for his 20-year stint on “Sesame Street,” where he took over the iconic Mr. Hooper’s store — and collaborated with some of the show’s puppeteers, directing their theatrical projects. He’s now directing “South Pacific” at Olney Theatre, returning to the scene of a theatrical success.
“Four years ago, I directed ‘Once on This Island’ here,” said Muraoka, calling that show “one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had as a director, now to be met and even exceeded by this one.
“I’m always super happy coming here. It’s a great place to challenge myself.” Olney Theatre Center, he pointed out, “is a teaching theater, and the idea of collaboration has always been so exciting to me. It’s been great.”
The collaborative nature of this production starts with the musical itself, a Broadway phenomenon from 1949 (“‘South Pacific’ was the ‘Hamilton’ of its time,” he said, “and Rodgers & Hammerstein, the Lin-Manuel Miranda.”) that paired war stories by a young author named James Michener with the theatrical prowess of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Debuting on Broadway shortly after then-President Truman desegregated the military, “South Pacific” dug deep into issues of bigotry and racism and stirred up a great deal of controversy.
“We were fighting a World War about freedom, and yet we didn’t really embrace that same kind of freedom in our own country,” Muraoka explained, summing up one of the musical’s more serious themes. “There was still this huge racial divide.”
The progressive Rodgers & Hammerstein decided to tackle the racial divide head on. And so, amid the staples of the Great American Songbook like “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” is the classic “You Have to be Carefully Taught,” a song so controversial 70 years ago that some Southern theaters sought to boycott the show’s tour.
“There were producers that tried to urge them to take it out of the show; both Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted these ideas to remain in the show,” explained Muraoka. “Obviously, it stayed in.” Indeed, some of scenes that had been removed for the show’s touring version were restored in the musical’s 2008 Lincoln Center revival.
“We got permission to add those scenes to our production as well,” said the director. “It paints the picture a little more clearly.”
It’s not always a pretty picture. American nurse Nellie Forbush, stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II, falls in love with Emile, a French plantation owner, but struggles to accept his biracial children, while Princeton-educated Lt. Joseph Cable cannot imagine his love for a Polynesian woman, Liat, transcending the prejudice of his family and friends back home in Main Line Philadelphia.
“It just feels so relevant right now,” said Muraoka. “A woman dealing with her own internal prejudice, that she feels is innate but is actually something she learned through her upbringing. She has to discover a way out of that learned behavior to find happiness and true love.”
Choreographer Darren Lee described “South Pacific” as “a story of a woman’s ability to overcome her own prejudice.” Lee has performed on Broadway for 18 years. He first met Muraoka 28 years ago, when both were in “Shogun: The Musical” at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre. Lee was 17, catapulted into show business after winning the junior dance competition on “Star Search.” He danced on “Kids Incorporated” with Mario Lopez and Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson, did commercials with Paula Abdul and Elton John, and performed at the Academy Awards — all while playing the leads in his high school musicals.
“I was able to come to Broadway right after high school,” said Lee, who put off plans to attend college. “My father was actually in academia — he served as the vice-president of Cal State University, Long Beach, for many, many years — and my family was absolutely convinced that I was going to go, do the show, and when the show closed I’d pick up, come back and return to college.”
It’s not something Lee has ruled out, but opportunities continued for him on the stage. He is coming to Olney fresh off the national tour of “The King and I.” Before that, he was in George Takei’s “Allegiance” — and he choreographed Muraoka’s “Once on This Island” at Olney in 2014.
“’South Pacific’ is a classic and beautiful show,” Lee said. “It has some iconic numbers in it, some of the best music in musical theater. It’s been a delight—a challenge and a pleasure—to create a production that is very specific to Olney Theatre Center.”
The company, he said, is slightly smaller than a typical Broadway musical cast. “It’s been a lot of fun and exciting and very effective, the way we’ve adapted the material and the work and the choreography and staging to really maximize what we have here.”
Lee didn’t research the historical choreography. “The original production did not have a choreographer,” he said. “The director did not feel it was necessary.”
Instead, he started riffing on the 1958 movie version, which starred Mary Martin and Rossano Brazzi. “I always like to approach my choreography from a story-driven place,” said Lee. “In good musical theater, that’s really how it’s developed; you have the characters and their tension, you have the story. And as an extension of that story, sometimes the emotion and the drama of events brings you to sing the lyrics. And the next level of expressing yourself is through dance.”
Lee said that while he researched Tonkinese culture and Polynesian influences to inform his choreography, he used creative license as well. “As I create a show, I try not to expose myself too much to someone else’s interpretation of the actual dances. I try not to let myself be influenced until after I’ve created, done my first pass. By doing that, the choreography, the creativity of the movement, really feels organic. It comes from me.”
Both Lee and Muraoka are fourth-generation Americans. Lee’s family is of Chinese descent; he said his extended family is from the San Francisco area. “My grandfather served in World War II,” he said proudly, adding that, like the Seabees in “South Pacific,” “he worked as a mechanic.”
Japanese American Muraoka said his dad served in Korea — and that many of his relatives were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.
“It brings up a lot of issues for me,” he said, and yet he is grateful for the insight he has gained by researching the World War II era for “South Pacific” — an era he described as “very textured.”
“I feel like doing these plays from the past is a great way to become a bit of a treasure hunter,” he said. “You have to do the story justice but try to maybe find a new way into the story.”
“South Pacific” runs through Oct. 7 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney. Regular performances start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday (No Wednesday matinees on Sept. 12 and 26). A Sign-interpreted performance starts at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27. Tickets start at $42, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.