by CHRISTINE SARKES
La vie est belle, life is beautiful, on the set of South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater through August 28. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 Broadway musical (and 1958 film) is romantic and lush, with such indelible music and lyrics that many left the theater whistling the tunes. It takes on prejudice and provincialism as a way to provide dramatic tension between the two main couples and the ahead-of-its-time song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” offers lyrics that seem particularly relevant: “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.” Erin Mackey (Ensign Nellie Forbush) and Edward Staudenmayer (Emile de Becque), give beautiful and heartfelt performances that transcend the often corny Rodgers/Hammerstein libretto and material. But, man, those songs–“Some Enchanted Evening”, “Twin Soliloquies”, “Bali Ha’i”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair”– have hooked audiences then and since. Placing the orchestra onstage with the actors brilliantly focuses the audience’s attention to the iconic music and score.
The plot of the musical is based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific and centers on an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II, who falls in love with a middle-aged French expatriate plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. Another romance, between an American lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman, explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart. In the meantime, WWII carries on with bored Seabees causing mischief and commanders plotting ways to defeat the Japanese.
Staudenmayer’s deep, rich baritone and classic good looks add to the romantic pull of the musical and complemented Mackey’s ditzy, but authentically true to herself, Nellie Forbush. The real show-stealer, however, was Jimmy Kieffer as the base clown Luther Billis, who offers comic relief, lots of laughs and a dose of chutzpah to the proceedings. Christine Toy Johnson is also excellent as Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary’s attempts to marry her daughter off to sexy Lt. Joe Cable (CJ Eldred) are uncomfortable as she literally gives her daughter to the woman-starved officer. The two young people fall in love at first sight, however, which makes the scene less creepy and provides a visual gift to the audience since Eldred is bare-chested through most of the scene. This is the first production of South Pacific at the Guthrie, an interesting choice for Guthrie’s Artistic Director and this musical’s director Joseph Haj. He guarantees huge audiences eager to see an iconic and crowd-pleasing production, while staying true to his effort to highlight themes of racial prejudice.
South Pacific, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan,adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener. Directed by Joseph Haj. Set design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Jennifer Caprio and lighting design by Justin Townsend. June 18 – August 28, 2016 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, 818 2nd St S, Minneapolis. Single tickets start at $39 at guthrietheater.org or box office at 612.377.2224. As available, public rush tickets (the remaining seats in the house) go on sale 15-30 minutes before any performance.