By Thom deMartino
Fear of “the other” is not inborn — but rather, learned through our society: we are carefully taught by culture.
In the current Westminster Community Playhouse production of “South Pacific”, directed by Patricia Miller, it’s World War Two: and the Allied forces are struggling on all fronts, including the Pacific… but while war rages, romance blooms.
Ensign Nelly Forbush (Emily Marie Border) is a nurse assigned to the local island base, who is finding herself falling for a local plantation owner, a charming but older Frenchman by the name of Emile de Becque (Jesse Seann Atkinson). He’s compassionate and progressive, something alluring to the small-town girl from Arkansas, who’s never met anyone quite like him back home. And though she’s smitten with him, she has yet to learn that Emile has two young biracial children from his previous marriage to his late wife, a native Polynesian woman.
In the meantime, a number of sailors led by the sly Luther Billis (Erick Schiffer) are bemoaning the lack of women for companionship, due to the local plantation owners sending their wives and daughters away to the idyllic adjoining island, Bali Ha’i, when they discovered the American forces were coming. While being teased by the flirtatious vendor of grass skirts, the native merchant “Bloody” Mary (Randi Tahara), Billis declares he wants to travel to Bali Ha’i to acquire a rare boar’s tooth necklace — though his buddies call him out, saying he only wants to go there for the women; but only officers are allowed upon the isle, and not the Seabees.
But Billis’ may have found his way to the island, if only he can persuade the new arrival, Lt. Joseph Cable (Derek Michell), a man with his own mission: to spy on and report enemy movements, hopefully to help turn the tide of war in the Pacific…only he will need a local guide to help him get the lay of the land — in the form of Emile.
However, the officers in charge, Col. Bracket (Bradley Miller) and Commander Harbison (Lee Rincon) have reservations about the expatriate, having questions about his past and the circumstances of his exit from France. And they’re not the only ones: the young Nelly herself is having second thoughts about having a relationship with the middle-aged man, and her hesitance is further complicated by the higher-ups asking her to learn where Emile’s loyalties lie.
The challenges of relationships carry over to Lt. Cable as well, as he finds himself smitten with a local girl, Liat (Rayzeen Skiles)… But cultures still clash even when they’re not “the enemy”…
For the protagonists, it’s a struggle not just against the Axis forces, but even against their own upbringings and customs as well… And the question if love, truly, can conquer all.
One of the greatest benefits of art is to allow the audience to question societal mores — even their own — through the lens of another artist, or a character’s viewpoint: and in this, Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” excels. Written and performed more than 15 years before the Civil Rights movement, the story questions the walls that different cultures place between each other, and whether it is nature or nurture that causes us to fear the unfamiliar, the foreign, the “alien”. The characters are challenged to find where their discomfort and unease comes from, and transcend it.
While the audience will recognize a number of popular musical standards such as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” (brilliantly performed by Jesse Seann Atkinson and Emily Marie Border, respectively): but it is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (sung by Derek Mitchell) that’s the witty and biting social commentary about how the views and perspectives we grow up around — regardless how unfounded or misinformed — frequently become our own.
But the ability of love to overcome all obstacles is a central theme, and the marvelous chemistry between the players truly shines — as do their singing talents. The cast brings a splendid vocal range and skill to this production: not just the leads (whose work is without question, outstanding), but the supporting cast as well. There are also some fantastic comedic moments throughout the show, many at the hands of Schiffer’s Luther Billis, Miller’s Col. Brackett, and even Tahara’s “Bloody” Mary.
“South Pacific” is a rousing and remarkable show, in its final two weeks at Westminister Community Playhouse: and well worth making the voyage to, before it sails off into the sunset.
“South Pacific”, Emily Marie Border, Jesse Seann Atkinson and Derek Mitchell star in this beloved musical about war, love, and the clash of cultures. Playing through June 1 at the Westminister Community Playhouse, 7272 Maple St, Westminster, CA 92683, from Oct. 7-23: ticketing information available online at http://www.wctstage.org, or call 714-893-8626. Appropriate for all ages.
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