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TIMELY THEATRE: Ray Kennedy returns to Thalian to direct ‘South Pacific’

Ray Kennedy has been directing shows for Opera House Theatre Company for a good three decades. In those years he has overseen at least 30 productions. Even more impressive: He does so remotely, as of the past seven years.

STAGE ANTICS: Jason Aycock and Mirla Criste Thompson will perform in ‘South Pacific,’ opening Wednesday at Thalian Hall. Photo by EJM Photography

STAGE ANTICS: Jason Aycock and Mirla Criste Thompson will perform in ‘South Pacific,’ opening Wednesday at Thalian Hall. Photo by EJM Photography

In 2010 Kennedy moved to NYC, after working on cruise-ship productions and spending a lot of time in Wilmington. He realized once up north, a piece was missing from his life that he couldn’t shake.

“Thalian Hall,” he says. “My real Wilmington home. When I first moved back to NYC, I missed that theater so much. I guess I had taken for granted I am privileged to direct in one of the most glorious theaters in the country.”

The second piece of his homesick blues came from the creative cast and crews he worked with through Opera House Theatre Company. Founder Lou Criscuolo—who passed away in 2014—and now creative director/producer Alice Sherwood figured out a way to work within Kennedy’s schedule so he could continue making the trek north to south and fulfill his stage dreams.

“The talent, onstage and off, and the constant is my creative team—Terry [Collins], Dallas [Lafon], Lorene [Walsh], Juli [Harvey], Selena [Harvey,] Debbie [Sheu], Alice [Sherwood]. We work well together and speak the same language,” Kennedy praises.

This week the director and his team will open the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.” Despite delayed flights and airline nightmares, Kennedy has embraced the opportunity since it’s one he has looked forward to for a while. “I have waited patiently (not!) for this chance,” he quips. “It is my first time directing it, and I could not do it without my assistant director, Jason Aycock, and musical director, Lorene Walsh. And, of course, Alice—we text constantly, day and night.”

We spoke with Kennedy about the show and its timely message against racism 70-some years after its debut.

encore (e): When were you first exposed to “South Pacific” and how did it affect you as a theatergoer?

Ray Kennedy (RK): As a child, my mother had an album that had someone singing “Some Enchanted Evening.” Even with young ears, I knew it was a great song. And later, when I heard the cast album, I loved all the music. Every single song. I think “South Pacific” is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best musical—and that is saying a lot.

e: Has the show taken on new meaning for you since that first impression?

RK: As I grew older, I realized how bold and progressive they were to tackle racism in 1948. This was years before the civil rights movement, and they were unapologetic to some of the backlash they got about the theme of the show.

e: In fact, when the show first launched in the late ‘40s, heavy criticism came from the South. Do you find it could spark as much controversy today?

RK: When the national tours started across the country, many productions in the South asked that Leuitenant Cable’s second-act number, “You Have to Be Carefully Taught”—which is a sarcastic comment on learned racism—be cut from the show. Rodgers and Hammerstein said, “Absolutely not! You get the whole show or no show.” While today I am so sad about the climate of intolerance in many sections of our world, I am not sure “South Pacific” causes controversy anymore. But I do think it causes one to think: Why have we not moved forward farther.

And last week, with the [president’s tweet about] the ban on transgendered service  men and women, it is so “right” to still beshowing in August 2017.

e: Do you think musical theatre helps toward fights for social justice?

RK: Absolutely. This show does not just have a story of dealing with racism but also societal issues. Lt. Cable came from a mainline Philadelphia family and feels he cannot take Liat, a Polynesian young woman he loves, home to his family. It makes the audience think of what is “acceptable.”

One great thing about 2017 is the younger generation seems to not care about all those antiquated “rules”; they accept people as people.

e: What will this world look like?

RK: Terry Collins has a great open vision for creating the allure of the South Pacific. Dallas Lafon is the lighting designer and understands what I want—sometimes, before I even speak. Debbie Scheu is the costume designer and a military spouse of a Naval Academy grad. Her daughter is married to a US Marine, so you can believe the costumes will be exactly right.

e: What are some of your favorite songs in “South Pacific?”

RK: The orchestrations are so lush and beautiful, and we have a nice sized orchestra under the direction of Lorene Walsh. Rodgers and Hammerstein have such a way with beautiful melodies. I just love “Some Enchanted Evening” and everything Nellie sings.

The music was specifically written for [the original Broadway performers] Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, but certainly has been sung beautifully by many. Kendra Goehring Garrett and Robin Dale Robertson are both great singers, and they make the songs their own. And “Bali Hai”? What a melody; Mirla Criste Thompson as Bloody Mary is perfection.

e: Tell me a little more about your cast.

RK: Mirla grew up literally backstage on the national tours of “South Pacific,” as her mother performed as Bloody Mary. She brings a real sense of honesty along with the comedy to the character.

Kendra and I have worked together on three Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals; I think she was born to be Nellie.

John Callison, who is a professional opera singer in NYC but has Wilmington roots, is Lt. Cable. The most beautiful young woman from Wilmington, Sydney Jones, is playing Liat.

Robin—who plays Emile Debecque—and I went to university together but I have only directed him once in “Grey Gardens.”

Jason Aycock is also in the show as a younger version of the traditional Billis. It works well with Nellie, and they are great doing the famous number “Honey Bun.”

e: Are you tackling the show traditionally? Or are there any updates you’re doing with the show that maybe haven’t been done before?

RK: I feel strongly this is a traditional show. When I directed “Carousel,” I set it in the Depression era, which I thought was a strong and different statement. But not for this show. 

It is based on [Pulitzer Prize-winning James A.] Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.” So it has to be 1940s, the Second World War and the mindset of that time.

I did a lot of research on Little Rock, Arkansas (where Nellie is from), to understand her world—how it influenced her thinking. She is not a “hick” (as she says she is) but “country club Little Rock, educated and strong willed.” Remember, Army nurses were not drafted; they signed up and chose to join the war effort.

South Pacific
Aug. 2-6, 11-13, 18-20, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall
310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $32

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