Overcoming Prejudice

One of my favorite Shel Silverstein cartoons is that a parent stuffing their child’s head full of hatred. I mention this because this afternoon we toddled on down to the Ahmanson Theatre to see “South Pacific”. Surprisingly, this was the first time I have seen a full production. I was stunned.

Today, we look back at Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and think of them as old-fashioned fluff. Oklahoma. The Sound of Music. The King and I. Nothing groundbreaking in there. But then we look at other works: Carousel, which explored relationship violence, or South Pacific. which looked at racism, and we begin to get a different picture of how groundbreaking these two men were. South Pacific came out in 1949, as was their fourth musical (Oklahoma, Carousel, and State Fair preceeded it). It tackled the subject of racism and the acceptance of it—in a sensitive accepting, but still critical manner. I think the heart of this musical is not the well-known songs, but the short song “Carefully Taught”:

You’ve got to be taught / To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught / From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed / In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, / Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

South Pacific is, at its heart, a morality story buried in a love story that takes place during WWII on an island in the Pacific Ocean. You can find a detailed synopsis at Wikipedia. In short, the two love stories are between Emile de Becque (a wealthy white plantation owner with two mixed race children) and Ensign Nellie Forbush (a nurse from Little Rock AR), and between Lt. Joseph Cable USMC from Philadelpha PA and Liat, a native Tongoese girl. Nellie loves Emile, but has trouble accepting him because he’s been with a island woman. Cable loves Liat, but can’t propose because she’s not white like him. Woven into all of this are the typical Navy hijinks of a group of Seebees (think McHale’s Navy), and a subplot about Cable and de Becque going to a nearby island to spy on Japanese troop movements.

The casting of this production was excellent. We had a few understudies, but didn’t even notice (and one was Nellie!). In the main love story, the leads were Rod Gilfry (Emile de Becque), a superb operatic quality singer, and Kate Fahrner (Nellie Forbush (understudy)), a strong singer and dancer with great timing who was just a joy to watch. I really cannot see how the original cast were better than these two. Our second couple were Anderson Davis (Lt. Joseph Cable USMC) and Sumie Maeda (Liat). These had smaller roles (esp. Maeda), but Davis was stunning in his singing. Other significant roles were Matthew Saldivar (Luthaer Bills) and Keala Settle (Bloody Mary). Their roles were more comic, but they captured that aspect perfectly. Rounding out the large cast were Gerry Becker (Capt. George Brackett), Genson Blimline (Stewpot), Christina Carrera (Ngana), CJ Palma (Jerome), Peter Rini (Cmdr. William Harbison), Rusty Ross (Professor), Eric L. Christian (Kenneth Johnson), Jacqueline Colmer (Dinah Murphy, Ass’t. Dance Captain), Jeremy Davis (Lt. Buzz Adams), Mike Evariste (Henry/James Hayes), Alexis G. B. Holt (Bloody Mary’s Ass’t.), Robert Hunt (Richard West), Chad Jennings (Radio Operator Bob McCaffrey), Christopher Johnstone (Thomas Hassinger), Kristie Kerwin (Ensign Sue Yaeger), Jodi Kimura (Bloody Mary’s Ass’t), Cathy Newman (Lt. Genevieve Marshall), Diane Phelan (Ensign Cora MacRae/Bloody Mary’s Ass’t.), John Pinto Jr. (Yeoman Herbert Quale), Travis Robertson (Tom O’Brien), Josh Rouah (Lt. Eustis Carmichael/ Petty Officer Hamilton Steeves), Kristen J. Smith (Ensign Connie Walewska), Matt Stokes (Seabee Johnny Noonan), Victor J. Wisehart (Morton Wise). This is the touring company—there was no Los Angeles specific casting.

Technically, the production was a delight, although we weren’t able to have the Lincoln Center orchestra trick. The sets were by Michael Yeargan, and were sumptuous: an island with a palm tree, with flys to give Emile’s mansion and the various military locations. Lighting was by Donald Holder—although there was a bit more follow-spot than I like, the rest of the lighting was spot-on perfect. I particularly liked how the background was colored during Bali Hi, and the airplane effects. Sound was by Scott Lehrer—again, an amazing job, especially during the Wash That Man number, where I had no idea how the actresses were miced. Customes were by Catherine Zuber and captured the period well. The production stage manager was Brian J. L’ecuyer, with additional stage manager duties shared by Rachel Zack and Michael Krug.

As noted above, the show featured music and lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein, with a book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, based on the story “Tales of the South Pacific” by James Michener. This production featured the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, with dance and incidental music arrangements by Trude Rittman. It was directed by Bartlett Sher. Musical staging was by Christopher Gattelli, with musical direction by Ted Sperling and musical coordination by David Lai.

“South Pacific” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until July 17, 2010. I discussed the 2010-2011 Ahmanson Season in this post.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. This is a busy, busy summer. Next week is the regularly scheduled June “Meeting of Minds” (Episode #10: Voltaire (Ray Abruzzo); Martin Luther (Mark Moses); Plato; Florence Nightingale [Sharon Lawrence]; with Steve Allen (Gary Cole) hosting) on June 20. June 25 brings “It’s Top Secret”, a musical that is part of the Festival of New American Musicals, at the NoHo Arts Center; the next night, June 26, brings The Rocky Horror Show” at the Underground Theatre. As for July, the month starts with “In The Heights” at the Pantages on July 3, and the Western Corps Connection in Riverside on July 5. The next weekend (July 10 @ 8pm) is the first show of the 2010-2011 Colony season, “Grace & Glorie”. The third weekend of July brings ; The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at REP East on July 17 and the July “Meeting of Minds on July 18. The 4th weekend brings Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on July 24. Plus July will possibly bring some ventures out to the Hollywood Bowl. August starts with “Young Frankenstein” at the Pantages on August 1, and (hopefully) “Rent” at the Hollywood Bowl (pending ticketing) the following weekend. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, and August 21 “Side Man” at REP East. Looking into September, there is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4, and “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 5-October 17, to be ticketed), plus of course, “Meeting of Minds” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (9/17-10/16).

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.