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A Dreamy South Pacific Stands the Test of Time

The classic tropical musical feels even more topical today.

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Stephanie Wall (Nellie Forbush) and John Cudia (Emile DeBecque) in South Pacific, directed by Glenn Casale, at La Mirada Theatre.
(© Michael Lamont)

The overture fades in with the woodwinds as the strings wistfully play the motif of "Bali Ha'i," the lush music that transports audiences to the magical islands of South Pacific. Just beyond the breeze and the luster of the sand, the entire world has clashed violently, and fascism has drawn most of mankind into the Second World War. The calm before the storm informs the plot of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, where just beyond the comedy awaits tragedy, and romance has been edged aside by racism. The production at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts solidly re-creates the joy and the sadness of this beloved hit.

In 1943 as the war rages between the Allies and the Axis, a small Pacific island hosts naval officers, nurses, and SeaBees (Naval Construction Battalion) biding their time on the sidelines. Youthful Lt. Cable (Matt Rosell) arrives with a project meant to turn the tide for the Allies: a lethal spy mission. To accomplish this risky task, he requires a local to show him around a strategic neighboring island. The best man for the job is a French expat plantation owner named Emile de Becque (John Cudia). But Emile has just found love with Ensign Nellie Forbush (Stephanie Wall), a kind but naive nurse from Arkansas, and he refuses to risk his life for the Americans, despite the ramifications. Meanwhile, Cable discovers love with a native girl named Liat (Hajin Cho), but hatred for others is not only a watch cry for the Nazis during this war. Even the heroes have an aversion to anyone different from their own.

Based on James A. Michener's short stories, South Pacific shines a mirror on the righteous to remind them that even the good need to learn to be decent. A controversial song from the show, "You've Got to Be Taught," flatly states that hatred isn't innate, but has to be reinforced over time, and is even found in America, land of the free. The book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan has no cookie-cutter protagonists. Everyone is earnest but still capable of growing if they allow self-reflection. Because the world has evolved little in that area over the last 75 years, the tenets of acceptance in South Pacific still feel fresh and relevant.

Under the watchful eye of director Glenn Casale, the cast at La Mirada have become a joyful unit. The ensemble numbers are cohesive and energetic. Wall makes a buoyant Nellie, capturing both the young woman's innocence and resilience. Cudia has a titanic baritone voice and displays a charming awkwardness around his lady love. Rosell is tender and conflicted as the man-child in over his head, trapped by his upbringing. Jodi Kimura perfectly embodies Bloody Mary, the island hustler and Liat's mother, portraying a crafty but desperate parent anxious to give her daughter a better life. Jeff Skowron is delightfully impudent as the con artist seaman Luther Billis, the ringleader of the male chorus. He bounces his dialogue off Marc Ginsburg, as his right-hand man Stewpot, like a ping-pong champion.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's score remains one of their most robust. The comedy numbers "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," and "Honey Bun" flaunt the island camaraderie. The sweepingly romantic "Some Enchanted Evening" and pensive "This Nearly Was Mine" are iconic. One can almost hear the waves crashing on the beach during the epic "Bali Ha'i." The infectious "A Wonderful Guy" builds to exhilaration.

Though not a heavy dance show, South Pacific seamlessly glides from scene to scene, something that Casale and his choreographer Peggy Hickey handle with aplomb. Musical director Brent Crayon's orchestra adds body to the romantic tones. Lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg's colors seem to reflect off the clouds, water, and sand, creating the ambiance of an island paradise. Mary Folino's costumes are a delightful mixture of beachwear and military regulation. Scenic designer Robert Kovach mixes painted scrims with three-dimensional topiaries to hint at an oasis.

A definitive golden-age musical, South Pacific still resonates today as a complex social commentary. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote some of their most soaring melodies and, combined with the book, created a smart musical for grown-ups. Glenn Casale and his troupe have illustrated why the musical still sparkles like the moon over the ocean.

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