“South Pacific” may be a period piece, a sweeping romance set against a lush tropical landscape during World War II. But its powerful themes of war and racial prejudice are very much relevant today, with the country on the edge facing a different foe and reeling from another senseless tragedy spurned from hate.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway workhorse, now onstage at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, blends in lessons of racial tolerance with iconic songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Honey Bun.” The song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” about racism being drummed in at an early age, is especially significant.
Inspired by James A. Michener’s Pulitzer-winning short stories, “South Pacific” focuses on two cross-cultural couples who are dealing with varying levels of prejudice. For Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, the cockeyed optimist from Little Rock, Ark., the revelation that her new beau—the cultured Frenchman Emile de Becque—fathered two children with a Polynesian woman is quite a blow, given her insular upbringing. She’s actually more in shock about this than learning that he killed a man back in his village in France, which prompted his departure. For island newcomer Marine Lt. Joe Cable, a Princeton grad from a wealthy family, he’s conflicted about his relationship with Liat, a Tonkinese island girl who makes him feel “younger than springtime” to the delight of her souvenir-selling single mother Bloody Mary (“He’s going to be my son-in-law!”).
“South Pacific,” sublimely directed and choreographed by Penny Ayn Maas, has many enchantments besides Emile and Nellie’s unabashedly romantic love story and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ravishing orchestrations, not too mention an enthusiastic ensemble who brings those big rousing musical numbers to life.
Branch Fields, who was an understudy for the Tony-winning Lincoln Center Theater production, seamlessly enters the role of the impossibly suave French planter, who is charmed by the small-town nurse and eventually assists the U.S. on a risky military mission to a Japanese-occupied island. “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine”—both drenched in emotion—wonderfully showcases his dreamy bass voice, which is guaranteed to make audiences swoon.
Nellie Forbush is winsomely played by Kate Marshall, who’s also no stranger to “South Pacific.” Her character undergoes the biggest change in the show, when she has to confront her own prejudices after she discovers the man she loves dearly was involved with someone of another race.
Riverside regular Alan Hoffman performs the role of the scene-stealing Luther Billis, who under his tough-guy exterior has a soft spot for Nellie. The fast-talking Seabee is always looking to make a buck, whether through his bathing-club or laundry operations.
For the role of Bloody Mary, Riverside took the nontraditional route in casting the Tonkinese (Vietnamese) “shrunken human head” hawker. The role has been performed by African American actresses in the past. It’s worth noting that Juanita Hall, who played Bloody Mary in the original Broadway production, became the first African American woman to win a Tony for best supporting actress—she also starred in the subsequent film version.
And Riverside didn’t have to look far to find its Bloody Mary. Kadejah Oné, most recently seen as Sofia in “The Color Purple,” softens up the portrayal of the betel nut-loving woman, who learns words from the sailors who surround her (“pretty soon I talk English as good as any crummy Marine”). Here, Bloody Mary is seen more as a character and not a caricature; she’s a savvy businesswoman and strong mother, who is looking out to secure a better life for her young daughter. Where Oné’s not so subtle: “Bali Ha’i.” With her knockout vocals, Oné makes this classic number her own—it’s incredibly powerful and entrancing.
Another standout performer is Robert John Biedermann as Navy Capt. George Brackett, who gets some good laughs in his limited stage time; one of the younger characters gets a verbal smackdown from Brackett after he makes a comment about older men.
As much as I love this Broadway classic, one of the things that has always bothered me is the representation of Bloody Mary, with her broken English (this show tones it down some, thank goodness, but the overly Asian look could also be reimagined). Then there’s her childlike daughter, Liat, who appears more of an exoticized prop with hardly any lines. She mostly smiles and appears submissive, eager to please the nice-looking lieutenant her mom has brought home.
But this doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the Riverside production, which is bathed in nostalgic sounds and styles. The nurses’ bathing suits are particularly vibrant and fun, and the whole creative team nicely transports audiences to this piece of paradise in the South Pacific.
After all these years, it’s easy to see why “South Pacific” continues to lure in theater companies—from high school to professional. The musical is a reflection of how far we have come from its 1949 début and how much further we still need to go. “South Pacific” doesn’t sign off with a big showstopper musical number or moment, but it leaves an indelible impression. Its final scene is a heartwarming image and gives us hope for a better future that we can all share.