Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific is a beloved American classic, and its songs are part of the familiar score of our lives (either by our choice or in elevators!). And now, the Kahilu Theatre has brought it to our own “special island.” It is of particular resonance to us, since many of us did indeed respond to our own island’s magnetic pull, as Bali Ha’i does in the show, “Come to me, come to me.” A few of us lived on Hawaii or Oahu during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and remember those war days.
The story, based on James Michener’s book about his Navy experience fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific during World War II, exposes the class and race contradictions of the various nationalities bottled up on a tiny island. It is a French colony, and the French planters live opulent lives off of Polynesian labor; romantic lead Emile De Becque’s mansion is glorious, and native servants are at his “becque” and call. Tonkinese Bloody Mary isn’t just kidding when she calls the French and Americans “stingy bastards.” She must use her substantial toolkit of wiles to extort a few bucks from the foreigners. Then thrown into the mix are newcomers, U.S. Seabees, virile young men super bored from waiting for military action and the lack of contact with “dames.” Nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush is the focal character; she falls in love with Emile and then must confront her own feelings about race.
First performed in 1949 right after war’s end, the musical tackles racism head-on. Nellie, a self-described “cock-eyed optimist” and believer in the goodness of humankind, nevertheless considers darker people to be inferior to whites. She is ready to marry Emile – until she finds out he had a first wife who was Polynesian, and that two darker-skinned children are his. She recoils in horror and seeks to leave the island. In the second romantic relationship, Lieutenant Cable falls in love with a Tonkinese girl but refuses to marry her; he realizes that a cross-racial marriage would never work. When Emile questions him as to whether it is natural for Americans to discriminate based on the color of a person’s skin, Lt. Cable responds in a surprisingly political song for a light musical, “You’ve got to be carefully taught… you’ve got to be taught to hate and to fear/it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear… before you are six, or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate.” In the 1950’s, some venues asked that this song be cut, and it was difficult to book South Pacific in some Southern states. Rodgers and Hammerstein refused to make any changes, saying that addressing racism was their explicit intention.
The musical is less progressive when it comes to gender. Emile is old enough to be Nellie’s father, yet he sings, “This is what I need/This is what I long for/Someone young and smiling….” Why can’t he long for someone middle-aged and smiling?! Lt. Cable sings, “Younger than springtime are you…” Yes indeed, in fact she’s under age. They have sex the first time he is introduced to her for that purpose; she’s being sold to him by her mother. Hmm, in this time of #MeToo, the two sets of romantic relationships hardly sound like recipes for true love.
The Kahilu production hewed closely to the original stage and movie performances. The staging, costumes, ensemble pieces, and characters depictions were as familiar and comforting as pulling on an old mu’umu’u. Chicago based Larry Adams as Emile sang with ease and emotion and was largely responsible for creating the romantic moods. It was thrilling to have Makana, Hawaii’s musical powerhouse, on Waimea’s own stage. He has gained international acclaim for his fine performances as guitar player, singer/songwriter, and political activist; we were privileged to see and hear him take a new leap into musical theater. Justin Henshaw acted a certain archetypical American male – enterprising, obnoxious, self-aggrandizing – but a charming rogue. Justin brought Luther Billis to life with comic flair; his commanding officers don’t know whether to admire him or to throw him in the brig. Angela Dee Kuliaihanu’u Alforque as Bloody Mary provided the female comic counterpart, performing her lines and songs with appropriate bravado.
But the evening belonged to Kat Reuss as Ensign Nellie Forbush. She stayed in the character of a small-town Southern girl, curious, playful, naive, open-hearted, a natural leader. She had the best acting chops on the stage and delivered both sad/romantic songs and swingy humorous ones with equal panache. She made us share her torn emotions and won our hearts.
Kudos to the excellent orchestra members and Barbara Kopra for her musical direction, and especially to Director Chuck Gessert. It was truly an enchanted evening.
Photos: Steve Roby