When “South Pacific” first débuted on Broadway, it was an immediate hit.
That was in 1949, pulling on the reflective heartstrings of audiences who had World War II fresh on their minds.
Flash forward to today: While WWII is long gone, many of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical’s poignant messages still hit home. The show owns the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts stage through Sept. 15.
“This is one of the strongest, most professional productions that anyone will see,” said Patrick A’Hearn, Riverside’s producing artistic director. “When we got the rights to the show, we wanted to do it right. We couldn’t just say that ‘Oh, we’re going to do it.’ We wanted to do it responsibly and we’ve done just that.”
According to A’Hearn, this marks the first time the show has taken place in the Fredericksburg region in nearly a decade. The last time “South Pacific” was performed at Riverside was in its second season, nearly 21 years ago.
Set on a South Pacific island during WWII, the story touches on racism, duty and romance, all seamlessly mingled via genuinely thought-provoking and periodic LOL-worthy moments.
At the story’s core are two interracial love stories, each with their own degrees of prejudice. First, Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Little Rock, Ark., and Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner. And, then there’s U.S. Lt. Joe Cable and island native Liat.
“This is still a very timely story, with the way the world is, the way our country is and the current climate of Washington,” said A’Hearn. “I always say that we have a large responsibility to entertain and educate when we can.”
Bringing “South Pacific” to life is Riverside regular, director Penny Ayn Maas. This marks her ninth production at Riverside, with additional credits including “Les Misérables,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Oklahoma!” Maas is a theater professor at Texas Christian University and has trekked to the ’Burg for a string of summers to direct shows.
“I’ll come up and direct every summer here, if that invitation is there ... it’s such a delight,” said Maas. “With this show, I’m hoping everyone has a sense of nostalgia, they are touched by these songs—that I hope are familiar to many—and I think their hearts will be opened.”
Maas said the story unfolds amid an expansive set with “an unending blueness that is these beautiful, tropical islands.” The cast of 24 is anchored by two Riverside newbies and strong singers.
Playing Emile is Williamsburg resident Branch Fields, who is starring in his eighth “South Pacific.” Among the strong opera singer’s career highlights with the show, he understudied the role of Emile during its Tony Award-winning run at Lincoln Center Theater in New York City. “South Pacific” aside, he’s also performed with the National Symphony Orchestra, New York City Opera and Munich Philharmonic.
“The book itself [James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Tales of the South Pacific’] stands on its own, but the emotions of this show just draw you in so much more,” he said. “It captures an age of Americana that had innocence and simplicity. And, of course, the music ... it just captures you.”
Playing Emile’s love interest, Nellie, is Custer, S.D., resident Kate Marshall. Her career highlights include starring as Milly during the national tour of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” among several regional theater credits.
“Nellie is a more flawed leading lady than others that I’ve played before,” she said. “So often we put women on pedestals—they’re nice but have no flaws. While Nellie is nice to everyone, she is raised with prejudices that she now has to face and can’t ignore. I had previously researched more for this complex role, and I’m really glad I get to put that research back to use.”
According to A’Hearn, more than 4,000 tickets for the show have already been sold. So, folks are encouraged to start planning their journey to the “South Pacific” soon.
“This show is a lot like comfort food,” he said. “Come, relax and prepare to be moved.”