Sail over to the Asolo for a moving production of “South Pacific”

Season is officially here as the Asolo Repertory Theatre opened its annual musical production of “South Pacific” this week. Set during World War II, “South Pacific” tells the story of a Dixie military nurse who falls in love with a dashing Frenchman living on a small Polynesian island; and an earnest lieutenant from the Main line in Philadelphia who becomes smitten with a young Tonkinese woman during his tour of duty.

Asolo’s production, directed by Rob Ruggiero and William Waldrop (music director), was beautifully rendered with soaring musical numbers. A small orchestra, conducted by Waldrop, accompanied the rich and splendid voices of the cast. The cast is so uniformly strong that the entire production hit all the right notes, yet for me the most outstanding performances were given by Tony-nominated Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary, who reprised her role from the Broadway production, and Tony-honoree Ben Davis as Emile De Becque.

Sayre’s haunting voice for the famous “Bali Hai” number made the fabled island seem far more ominous than it ever has before. And, the outstanding lighting effects in this production, which made the island glow in an eerie, mysterious way, foreshadow the dangers Cable (Anthony Festa) will ultimately face.

Davis’s baritone voice is so powerful that it swells throughout the theater. Early in the show, nurse Nellie Forbush, played by a delightful Kelly Felthous (who incidentally reminded me of a young Kristen Chenoweth, and in fact, played Glinda in the tour of “Wicked”), proclaims, upon learning De Becque has killed a man, that although she barely knows him, she believes he is a good man.

Davis is so nuanced and genuine in his performance, I found myself tacitly agreeing with Forbush’s hasty presumption. Throughout the production, DeBecque is the moral compass for the rest of the characters, a feat indeed for someone who has admitted to murder.

The production is marked by an intimacy that focuses on character development. Ruggiero has scaled down the Broadway version that I saw in 2008 to fit the Asolo stage. The somewhat surprising result was that I felt far more focused on the by-now familiar story of the culture clash that occurred when the United States responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and sent troops to the South Pacific.  

This show is part of the Asolo’s five-year plan to examine the American character; and “South Pacific” is a wonderful choice. The play premiered on Broadway in 1949, and this Rodgers and Hammerstein production was bold and unapologetic in its exploration of racial prejudice, winning the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

Although the characters display uncomfortable prejudices toward those of Asian descent, they also speak with a heightened consciousness about these engrained beliefs that echoes conversations that we continue to have to this day. Rodgers and Hammerstein admirably chose to highlight these unpleasant beliefs, especially in the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” in which Cable, a wealthy, well-educated young man, sings about his family teaching him, at a young age, to hate the “other.”  Despite the fact that we continue to grapple with these issues in the present day, it does speak to the American character that the great American musical discovers a way to help us confront the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see.

Don’t miss “South Pacific!” The 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner will run through the holiday season and close Sunday, December 28, 2014. To purchase tickets, call 941.351.8000 or 800.361.8388, visit www.asolorep.org, or visit the Asolo Repertory Theatre Box Office, located in the lobby of the theatre.  

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