It’s clear why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” is such an enduring classic in the world of live theater and why the folks at the Encore Musical Theatre Company consider it their first big splash of the year, after “Guys on Ice” and “On Golden Pond” got us all through the winter.
For those unfamiliar, the story revolves around Nellie Forbush (Marlene Inman), an American nurse stationed in the South Pacific during the Pacific Theater of World War II. She meets and is soon courted by French expatriate plantation owner Emile De Becque (Stephen West). Unfortunately, Nellie is a product of 1940’s rural Arkansas and has difficulty getting past the fact that Emile became romantically involved with native islanders and had children with them.
The presentation of Nellie’s dilemma is much cleaner than it is presented in the literature that inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein to create their play based on that work, but the core theme of learned hate is still there. The character even addresses it directly when she laments aloud her upbringing, and the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” directly takes on the issue of racial hate.
It’s difficult not to let your mind drift away from the realm of imagination that experiencing a work of fiction is supposed to transport you to with news of the Charleston church shooting still fresh and raw from earlier in the month and more recent news of the arson of a predominantly black church in South Carolina, but in this case it enriches the production because its messages are directly relevant in the lives of modern people.
It’s the fact that we continue to struggle with our hatred of differences in other people that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work here will continue to resonate with those of us who sync up with the better angels of our nature. It’s a universal theme that translates well despite the content of the show dealing with decades-old racial stereotypes and prejudices born out of the second World War.
Stephen West is, as always, a powerful stage presence who infuses everything that passes his lips with gravitas and authenticity. Singing aside, he does a skillful job playing Emile. There are nuances to the performance, such as his difficulty following the idiosyncrasies of Nellie’s speech early on in their courtship that West conveys perfectly with his acting.
Inman’s treatment of Nellie succeeds in preserving her relatability beyond the point of the revelation that she’s internalized racial prejudice. Aside from that component to the show’s moral conflict, Nellie is a charming southern belle tossed into the midst of a most uncivil set of circumstances. Inman emulates southern charm and grace well, and her ability to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with West with her singing talents is to be applauded.
Sebastian Gerstner plays Lieutenant Joe Cable, who is paired with Teola Lutsker’s Liat by the latter’s mother Bloody Mary (Gayle Martin). This is an almost secondary romance plot that follows in parallel with that which plays out between Emile and Nellie. Having two romances going at once conveys that the internalized ideas that are making Americans from the era have difficulty getting past other people’s race is a pervasive reality that those on both sides of interracial romances of the time must contend with.
Gerstner’s the dancing equivalent of West, creating as much magic with his feet as West does with his voice, although those who know and appreciate Sebatian’s work will miss his signature strength, as there just isn’t much dancing in “South Pacific” compared to other Encore shows in which he has made an appearance.
Gayle Martin as Bloody Mary is an absolute scene and even show-stealer with her affable performance as an old Tonkinese bazaar-woman, always wheeling and dealing, while outsmarting and sometimes berating the enlisted men who are making their temporary home on the island that is her native home. The character could also be construed as very stereotypical, depending on how you look at it, but Martin’s treatment of Mary is absolutely above reproach.
If great characters, singing and an enduring story that is still relevant today isn’t enough reason to see “South Pacific” before it’s gone on July 3, come out for Rogers and Hammerstein’s score. Numbers like “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “Happy Talk” are absolutely worth hearing.
For more information on the Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production of “South Pacific,” visit http://www.theencoretheatre.org/.
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