Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“South Pacific” Proves Powerful, Relevent in Claremont
In 1949, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II opened the Pulitzer Prize-winning “South Pacific” on Broadway. Based on James Michener’s equally Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the silliness, boredom, and racial conflicts of “behind the action” stations in the Pacific during World War II, it featured some of the duo’s most memorable songs. At the time its relevance was both obvious and challenging, only 4 years after the end of the war. Fascinatingly, sadly, the new production at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater cannot help but remind us that it still has something rather pointed to say to a modern audience.
The tale centers on a US naval supply station and hospital located on a tiny Polynesian island in what most of its temporary occupants would consider the middle of nowhere. The more permanent inhabitants, both the French planters who came as colonists and the Polynesian native population, live in an comparatively relaxed coexistence the Americans have significantly disrupted one way and another. For many of the Americans, this is their first contact with foreign cultures, and the fallout can prove jolting.
This is especially true for Nellie Forbush, a nurse at the hospital in the process of falling in love with Emile de Becque, one of the successful planters. Her Little Rock roots soon clash with de Becque’s background in a number of ways. For Lt. Joseph Cable, a young Marine about to start a fearsomely dangerous assignment as an “Island spotter,” the struggle comes as he falls heavily for a Polynesian girl his upbringing tells him he cannot marry. For Luther Billis, an opportunistic Seabee, the goal is far more mercenary, and much more lighthearted, as he tries every trick in the book to get passage to the neighboring island upon which planters and natives alike have put their young women.
At Candlelight Pavilion the balance of lighthearted silliness and wrenching comings of age are balanced just as they should be, graced by strong performances by the leads and clever choreography which keeps the show rolling along. Katie Moya is Nellie, singing with confidence the iconic songs, and giving a strong sense of the cultural and ethical dilemmas which complicate her romantic life. Michael Scott Harris has the pipes to handle de Becque – a part originally written for an opera star – and the solid presence to make his status as a commanding planter convincing.
Marc Montminy makes Luther Billis just enough of a big galoot to make him lovable even as he connives with impressive lack of cultural understanding to gather souvenirs. Shane Litchfield manages to create a sense of youth, seriousness and self-awareness as Lt. Cable, and Candida Celaya gives just enough gravitas to Bloody Mary to make her distress later in the show make sense even as she provides delightful silliness near the start. She also handles the great “Bali Ha’i” fairly well – a song in a register too low for many singers.
The ensemble who provide the rest of the island’s inhabitants, from nurses and seabees, to natives and naval commanders back up these leading figures with energy and style. The choreography by Janet Renslow makes good use of the comparatively small chorus to provide various atmospheric moments, and Chuck Ketter’s direction keeps things moving on the excellent set he also designed.
Still, what becomes most potent at this time in our nation’s history is the show’s unsweetened look at the prejudices of the past. Indeed, as Lt. Cable sang with sorrow “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6, or 7, or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate,” the night I saw the show, people were marching with torches in Charlottesville. It may be 58 years old, but “South Pacific” remains a mirror we really need to gaze into.
What: “South Pacific” When: through September 9, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursday March 23, 5 p.m. Sundays, for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 general, $30 – $35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com