When James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific came out in 1947, readers entered an exotic world and stories that contrasted love and war. His Pulitzer-winning book about military men, nurses, natives, and a mysterious French expatriate challenged American values of the time.
But there is nothing like a musical to send a strong message on racism and stereotypes, thought composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. When their South Pacific premiered on Broadway in 1949, the Civil Rights Movement was slowly emerging, yet audiences were enchanted and enlightened.
The music and message in South Pacific remain rich and provocative, and at the same time, dated and prosaic, which makes San Diego Musical Theatre’s run at Horton Grand Theatre in the Gaslamp all the more significant.
Carolyn Agan gives nurse Nellie Forbush a mature and twangy personality and tickles funny bones in “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” one of many songs burned to memory. She and Robert J. Townsend as French plantation owner Emile De Becque shine in purposely awkward embraces. Don’t forget, she’s not happy about his mixed-race children (who sing “Dites-Moi”).
Savor the memorable score and the incredible 15-member orchestra directed by Don LeMaster. If you spin your head around, you’ll see him conducting on a screen, but the musicians are hidden.
Randy Slovacek’s choreography includes a variety show and sailor horseplay in “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”
SDMT squeezes Broadway value into the 250-seat theatre; every seat has a fine view. Mike Buckley’s set conjures exotic beaches, plantation homes, and military outposts on the pocket stage. Actors run through the aisles.
Hero Lt. Cable, played by Casey Johnson, sleeps with Liat, a young island girl with delicate hands and no voice. The close proximity to their sleeping mat is squirm-inducing. Equally so are Asian stereotypes and the “Happy Talk” song. Gigi Coddon owns the role of Bloody Mary and sings with bawdy humor. She calls sailors bastards, sells trinkets and her daughter, and we laugh. We sigh as she croons “Bali Ha’i” and hear ocean waves crashing.
World War II accelerated social change, and South Pacific is a reminder that history never dies. Director Kirsten Chandler presents a potent play about two unlikely couples amid the stress of war and waiting.
Augustine Welles delivers a comically explosive performance as Seabee Luther Billis. He’s known as an entrepreneurial sailor out for himself, but risks his life for others in the end. A Poway High School Grad, Welles brings a thrilling mix of Brooklyn and man unhinged.
There are moments in South Pacific when we want the damn war to end. At three hours including the intermission, we wish they’d cut a few numbers, but how?
The music and message linger. The score is enchanting; “Some Enchanted Evening” is considered immortal. Prejudice is slammed most sternly in the young lieutenant’s song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” sung beautifully by Johnson. That compelling song made heads pop off in the late 40s and feels more relevant than ever.
South Pacific, presented by San Diego Musical Theatre, runs April 27 through May 27, 2018 at the Horton Grand Theatre. www.sdmt.org. 858.560.5740.