Pleasanton's Firehouse to present "South Pacific's" timeless
interracial love story
By Lou Fancher
The Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "South Pacific" is salty and sweet.
Salt's crisp and preserving properties arrive in the classic show's eternal social themes including racism, war and love's rewards and sacrifices. Sweetness infuses the score, which soars from simple ensemble unisons to hummable, well-known ballads and other songs including "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," "Younger than Springtime" and "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy."
The tantalizing combination based on Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist James A. Michener's, "Tales of the South Pacific" and the stage adaptation/book by Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan will be presented Saturday through Nov. 22 by Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre at Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center.Audiences have long flocked to the work -- on the Broadway stage in an original production that won 10 Tony Awards, including all four acting awards in 1950, and in theaters and on television, with a 1958 film, a 2001 television adaptation and theatrical tours and revivals.
Set on an island in the South Pacific during World War II, characters from Michener's collection of short stories published in 1947 shed their independence from each other to amalgamate in a story about an American nurse who falls in love with a French expat plantation owner who has two mixed-race children. A second romance between a U.S. Navy lieutenant and an island native introduces parallel cultural and racial complexities. Tragically broken hearts, heroism and one death add high drama and an operatic air to the production. Issues of race and acceptance -- or lack thereof -- make the show particularly relevant for contemporary audiences."I've loved this show forever," says Joy Sherratt, Pacific Coast Rep's co-founder and the show's director and choreographer.
I've been singing 'Wonderful Guy' since seventh grade," she says. "I saw the Broadway revival performed and loved that it was simplistic. There was no huge set. But directing it now, I try not to look at other productions that have been done."
Even so, the streamlined approach she admired and the Firehouse's small stage are perfect partners influencing her approach to design and choreography. Working with scenic designer Pat Brandon and lighting designer Mike Oesch, she says, "You have to think of movement and the visual concepts as fluid."
Much of the choreography involves artfully moving the sets to avoid blackouts and pauses between scene changes.
"We can't fly in set pieces, so we create a sense of defined space through movement and lighting," she says.
Believing that the original characterizations are central to the production, Sherratt asked the actors to read chapters of Michener's book that are vital to their roles. With the novel as background, she says the cast's honest approach prevents characters who burst into song and dance from seeming forced or contrived.
"We're telling a real story, not just scratching the surface. I tell the actors they sing because talking isn't enough. They dance because what they're feeling can't be verbalized or told with words alone."
"South Pacific" has multiple journeys and climaxes, but Sherratt says the pinnacle for her is an Act II scene that brings the undercurrents of prejudice to a peak when two lovers can't bridge the racial divide to overcome prejudice despite their love for each other.
"What do we value? What are our values? The scene's only a minute or so long, but it's powerful," says Sherratt.
Contemporary society doesn't have the luxury of falling into lush harmonies instead of shouting or pirouetting instead of rioting. If it did, perhaps people would find peace, discard judgment and get along. Provided an opportunity to "get it right the second time," maybe people could break free from patterns of racism, and we could all begin to feel like life is a tropical island escapade.