The sands of time
South Pacific stays relevant a half-century later
By Jenny Lower 11/14/2013
Based on James Michener’s novel of the same name, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is a meditation on Western fascination with so-called exoticism. The story takes wholesome, provincial Americans fighting to defend their country and thrusts them into a bewitching tropical landscape where they confront the mystique in different ways — by fighting it or by embracing it, with the realization that the foreign is not actually so strange.
Today, the biracial children that would have startled post-war audiences are just part of another modern family. That part of the story feels mercifully dated, but it also keeps the musical relevant. There are always fresh prejudices to replace the ones we’ve conquered, and new contact zones where war collides with unfamiliar cultures. We still have something to learn from watching these innocents abroad. Moorpark’s High Street production, directed by Ken Rayzor, transports us to this mesmerizing world with an enthusiastic cast and impressive set design that evokes the swaying palm trees and glittering beaches of the tropics.
Husband and wife Kelly and Ian Green nearly singlehandedly provide the show’s comic relief as Luther Billis, an affable buffoon who runs the laundry, and Bloody Mary, a shrewd Tonkinese businesswoman who makes a fortune selling grass skirts and shrunken heads to the soldiers. Mary (Ian Green) tempts Billis (Kelly Green) with tales of Bali Ha’i, the twin-volcano island where natives craft boar’s tooth bracelets in orgiastic ceremonies. The set design team (helmed by Alex Britton) has created an alluring silhouette of Bali Ha’i that hovers on the horizon like a dream.
As Ensign Nellie Forbush, Elizabeth Kelly captures the 1940s flip, scarlet lip, upbeat spirit and Midwestern accent of our heroine. Her Nellie is vivacious and unaffected, never more than when she’s washing that man out of her hair while an unseen observer looks on. Though early songs test her range, Kelly hits her musical stride with the pert “Honey Bun” number that opens Act 2. When Nellie, a Little Rock, Ark., native, balks on discovering the man she loves, expat Frenchman Emile de Becque (Alex Britton), has fathered two children by a Polynesian woman, Kelly gracefully embodies Nellie’s internal struggle.
Emile is meant to be Nellie’s polar opposite — open-minded and cultured, well-read and well-to-do. Britton possesses the rugged sensitivity, high-minded idealism and velvety tones that have Nellie smitten. His “One Enchanted Evening” offers one of the evening’s dreamiest moments. Costumer Laurel Marion does an excellent job designing outfits that emphasize Nellie’s youth and his sophistication, bringing their characters into a visual dialogue that parallels their philosophical contrasts. Even the de Becques’ French is quite good, particularly the children’s (Connor Green, and Hannah Thacker and Lexie Collins on alternating nights).
Though more historically accurate, the love story between Lt. Joe Cable (Ryan Driscoll) and Liat (Ashley Ruiz) may grate against modern audiences. It’s hard not to rail against the apparent exploitation of Bloody Mary’s virginal daughter, offered up for an aspirational union with an American soldier. Ruiz is appropriately sweet and lovely, while Driscoll meets the unlikability challenge as the Princeton-bred Philadelphian with a girl and a partnership waiting back home. He performs some of the evening’s best vocals in “You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” a pointed indictment of racism. Cable is determined to resist the South Pacific’s pull, but it’s less willing to let him go.
With powerful songs and compelling conflicts, this musical gives us plenty to think about, even after the final curtain.
South Pacific, through Nov. 24, High Street Arts Center, 45 E. High St., Moorpark, 529-8700 or www.hsac45.com.