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Review of South Pacific at The Guthrie

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Quote of the Day: from the conversation in Roger’s and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, after Nurse Nellie admits her prejudice is the reason she won’t marry Emile, the Frenchman ex-pat whose first wife was Polynesian. Lt. Cable has been lamenting that he can’t marry Liat, a native Island girl, because she won’t be accepted by his friends and family back home in Pennsylvania.

Emile de Becque: What makes her talk like that – you and she? I do not believe it is born in you! I do not believe it!
Lt. Cable: It’s not born in you – it happens after you’re born!

This confrontation is followed by the song, You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught, with lyrics that burn your ears with the truth. You’ve got to be taught, to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year, It’s got to be drummed in your dear, little ear. Rogers and Hammerstein, along with their co-writer Joshua Logan, won the Pulitzer Prize for this musical in 1950. This song sparked all kinds of controversy. People didn’t like hearing that racism was carefully taught. They sure didn’t like to hear that some people might be bothered by that, and in the Southern regions of the United States of America, legislators tried to ban the song and all such lyrics that might justify interracial marriage because “In the South we have pure bloodline, and we intend to keep it that way.” (From the research and writing in the Guthrie Theater’s program, most likely written by dramaturg Jo Holcomb who does an excellent job of giving us history and background to the shows produced there.) 

CJ Eldred (Lt. Cable), Christine Toy Johnson (Bloody Mary) and Manna Nichols (Liat) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of 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 and 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, Minneapolis. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

CJ Eldred (Lt. Cable), Christine Toy Johnson (Bloody Mary) and Manna Nichols (Liat) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of 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 and 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, Minneapolis. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The evening was hot and sultry as we drove into the city. The Wurtele Thrust stage at the Guthrie Theater was both cool and inviting. My boys and I sat down, listened to the simulated waves on the beach and observed all the details of the set for South Pacific. The background is the tall trunks of Palm trees with a netting of palm branches that also look like the camouflage worn by the G.I’s. The Lighting Designer, Justin Townsend, provided the mood changes this production needs as we have beautiful sunsets as couples fall in love, purples, oranges, and golden sun reflecting. With a change of lighting, we have the dark greens, shadows, things that are hidden. In the night, when all goes dark, the stars shone brightly through. South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater is a visually stunning piece. Can you hear the first three notes of Bali Ha’i calling you to the sea, your dream destination, and a world that no longer carefully teaches hate and fear? Bali Ha’i, Bali Ha’i, Bali Ha’i… I was hypnotized by the calling of this song, Bloody Mary’s (Christine Toy Johnson) enchanting voice, and the mysticism mixed with harsh reality in a setting that is at once a tropical paradise and again raged by war.

Male cast of South Pacific, playing through August 28, 2016 at The Guthrie Theater. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Male cast of South Pacific, playing through August 28, 2016 at The Guthrie Theater. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

My 16-year-old twin sons accompanied me to this show. I call them my double date! The opening scene is all romance and wistful looks with the song Some Enchanted Evening strumming through the night breezes. I thought, uh-oh, the boys are going to give me looks for dragging them to a romantic “chick” musical. Then, the G.I.’s come out in their various states of dress, and undress, singing There is nothing like a dame with all it’s fun and folly, which is quickly followed by the nurses jogging through in their cute, little outfits. And, I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair is just plain fun, even though we all know that Nurse Nellie never really did a good rinse job on that! 

We’re all musicians in my family. The boys and I enjoyed watching the band, live, at the back of the stage. I suppose a few more live strings would have been nice, but they don’t have much room back there for the “pit,” and the instruments and musicians who were there did a lovely job of giving us all the luscious notes, never over-powering the singers, and always keeping the rhythm and mood of the show flowing. My favorite scene was the “Thanksgiving Follies” where some of the members put on a show. This is where Erin Mackey’s (Nurse Nellie) tremendous talents really shine. She sings, dances, acts, and engages the G.I.’s, other nurses, and the entire audience. This is classic musical theatre at its finest.

Lt. Cable (CJ Eldred) and Liat (Manna Nichols). Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Lt. Cable (CJ Eldred) and Liat (Manna Nichols).
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Joseph Haj has directed a fine musical that is at once a classic favorite with a story line to fall in love to, with a score so many can sing all the lyrics, to bringing out the elements that gave this show character, controversy, and food for thought. The boys took note that Liat’s and Lt. Cable’s story is left hanging, as did so many lives during that time, when war raged, but hearts continued to yearn for peace and love, and fighting prejudices within yourself and your community would take years of tiny wars and uncomfortable moments to conquer. A war we’re still fighting.

Get swept away by the stunning production of South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater, playing now through August 28, 2016.

Go. Create. Inspire!

Journaling Prompt: What are some core beliefs from your community, family, or upbringing that you’ve had to re-examine, and perhaps fight? How do you show love to your neighbor, no matter how different you are are?

  1. That is one of my favorite musicals.
    Juneta @ Writer’s Gambit

  2. Hard to imagine a time when interracial marriage was forbidden. It wasn’t that long ago though.

  3. Reexamine them? Yes. Set myself straight about some hateful ideas? Yes. I will not be easily led. I am a free thinker. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  4. I’d love to see ‘South Pacific’ – I don’t think it’s ever been produced here in South Africa. I’m sure there’s a film of it? I’ll check. It sounds as if it was a wonderful evening Mary enjoyed by your lads too! I’m trying to think of a core belief that forms part of my background that I disowned … but I’m not sure that I can. Perhaps to be less judgmental. Re: my neighbour and their differences in terms of a different culture – and here in SA we’re a melting pot – I think a warm smile goes a long way and a willingness to step into their shoes. Thank you Mary, a lovely post!

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