Opera House Theatre Company brings “South Pacific”—the 1949 musical based on the 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection of James Michener—to life currently at Thalian Hall. (Michener would also write the book “Sayonara,” later to become the academy award-winning film.) Rodgers and Hammerstein, arguably one the most famous writing partnerships in the 20th century, adapted the stories to a stage musical that would win the Pulitzer for Drama. While watching the production Ray Kennedy directed, I was struck by how relevant the show remains over 60 years later: Themes of gender, race, class, and privilege continue to resonate in 2017.
Emile de Becque (Robin Dale Robertson) lives on a plantation on a remote South Pacific island. Up until the war and the occupation by U.S. troops, life had settled into a rhythm. Or was it a rut? Among the Americans on his island is a beautiful young nurse, Nellie Forbush (Kendra Goehring-Garrett), a self-described “Hick from the Sticks.” She’s never been anywhere like this before, and in Little Rock Arkansas she certainly never met a charming Frenchman like Robertson’s Emile. He is thoughtful, just nervous enough to be believable, yet still suave. And my gods(!), when he sings “Some Enchanted Evening“ to her I almost fell out of my seat it was so romantic. And she swoons, too—which how could she not? Maybe that’s what makes Goehring-Garrett’s Nellie so much fun: Audiences can feel her surprise and amazement at each new experience she encounters in this brave new world.
While Nellie is discovering the civilized and refined side of paradise, the Navy is sweating through another day of the war. The Seabees (Ethan Drake, Kellen Hanson, Qaadir Hicks, Jackson Lee, Timothy A Mills, Blaine Allen Mower, Marlon Ramos, Mathis Turner, Bradley Barefoot, and Jordan Wolfe) are bored. They have three options for entertainment: One is Bloody Mary (Mirla Criste), a local vendor of every imaginable trinket or souvenir. We first meet her through their eyes with the song “Bloody Mary,” but it becomes apparent quite quickly the Seabees see only the surface and fail to understand the motivations that drive her: a desire for a better life for her and her loved ones, fear of hunger and violence and, most of all, determination to make the best of the cards life has dealt her. If that means playing up to their stereotypes, so be it. She will laugh all the way to the bank.
Criste communicates all that and more. Her Mary is a web of ambition, desire and frustration. She brings us a woman who, if she looked like Vivien Leigh and held up her hands to declare, “With God as my witness, I will never go hungry again,” it would be heartily praised by these men who would leap to her defense. Though her motivations and ambitions are parallel to Scarlet O’Hara’s, by virtue of her appearance and location, she is dismissed out of hand. It is a very difficult role, and, if not handled carefully, it can quickly become a really offensive caricature. But Criste is a deft hand, and her Mary surprises and challenges the audience.
The next option for entertainment comes in the form of Billis (Jason Aycock), who (like Bloody Mary) is always cooking up a scheme for making money—whether it is laundry, shower concierge service or trying to supply Bloody Mary with cheaper merchandise. Billis is written to be comedic relief, and Aycock has no trouble milking that, but he is also the guy with whom we expect Nellie to court. He’s blue collar, as American as it gets, and head over heals for her. If Aycock is onstage, we know we are going to be laughing or wishing Nellie would notice him.
Mostly, though, the Seabees complain about their lack of options, most notably and humorously in “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” It is a fun, big dance number that will leave audiences singing the refrain under their breath at intermission.
Just when life feels like it has hit a plateau for these men, in walks Lt. Joe Cable (John Callison). He has come to persuade Emile to join him on a dangerous secret mission. Before that can happen, Bloody Marry introduces him to her daughter Liat (Sydney Jones). Callison’s Joe is the total package: smart, charming, gorgeous, and when he opens his mouth to sing, it is hypnotizing—like some sort of weird hybrid of Sinatra and Nicolai Gedda. With “Younger Than Springtime,” his ode to Liat, he has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand—and at least half of them wishing they were in his arms. But he also has the challenge of singing “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s commentary on racism. It is a tough and difficult song, but his anger propels it forward and gives it a transformative quality.
Terry Collins has created the world with palm trees, sand, the erosion fencing that Wilmington beach-goers will recognize quickly, and for the Thanksgiving follies scene a flatbed truck that is fabulous. The shower stall and ladder set up for Nellie to wash that man right out of her hair is fun and functional. Really, he has created a very fun playground for the performers, and it is visual candy for the audience.
Debbie Scheu manages to get all the military personnel in matching costumes that still have personalized modifications—quite an undertaking for a cast of this size—not to mention Robin Dale Robertson and Kendra Goehring-Garrett’s multiple changes. Her work creates authenticity and makes the evolving world they inhabit visually comprehensible.
“South Pacific” endures because it looks at the way people cope during the stress of war with humor and love. The cast makes the microcosm they inhabit come alive in a way it humanizes big themes of our lives: love, confusion, struggle, the roles of gender, class, race, and our ability to grow or willingness to stifle. The dancing is fun, the singing is beautiful, the sets are fantastic, and the acting will conjure laughter and tears. It is a great evening of theatre.