Some Enchanted Evening
Baton Rouge Little Theater production of South Pacific shines, but might not be for everyone
By Mark RedmondPosted Jul 11, 2012
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the summer musical at Baton Rouge Little Theater, and while I’m not the biggest fan of musicals, I wholeheartedly support BRLT’s mission statement: “to provide the residents of Greater Baton Rouge the opportunity to participate in quality live theatre,” as theatre is a “living reflection of human imagination and experience.”
To celebrate, BRLT brings South Pacific to Baton Rouge through July 29. The local theater’s epic production can be easily praised for its value, but inherent problems within South Pacific itself make it hard to recommend to everyone. Bottom line: if you like the play, go see it; if you don’t know much about it, look into it first.
South Pacific is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection, Tales of the South Pacific. It centers around two romantic plots: a young Army nurse finds herself mutually smitten with a middle-aged French expatriate, while a handsome lieutenant beds and then falls for a native girl. The lieutenant, Cable, is in the South Pacific to take part in an operation that will require assistance from the Frenchman, de Becque.
The play has largely escaped criticism and controversy due to the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are generally treated as sacrosanct by those within the theatrical community, but it is not without its share of problems. Several characters are stereotypes that, while potentially overlooked in their time, appear racist to contemporary eyes, particularly when Caucasian actors portray characters of Tonkinese (from Tonkin China, now Vietnam) ancestry with make-up and exaggerated accents.
The unfortunate implications don’t end there: there seems to be some argument as to the age of Liat, the Tonkinese daughter of Bloody Mary with whom Cable falls in love despite a language barrier. Some productions portray her as barely pubescent, while others feature an older Liat (for what it’s worth, Playbill’s Equity audition information states that Liat is ranged 15-22). It’s highly likely that the age gap with Cable is pretty wide, and while intergenerational relationships were all the rage for most of recorded history, the “love” between the two cannot be interpreted by a modern audience with anything less than mild unease.
Regardless, BRLT has staged the musical with its content intact, which is laudable. Retroactive political correctness that changes works of art can only serve to obscure and undermine the historic reality of artistic documents.
When the first two characters to appear on stage are children – de Becques’ biracial offspring with his deceased Tonkinese wife – one cannot help but groan. These two, however, are real-life siblings, and their acting is suitable and unobtrusive. The actors portraying the collection of sailors, Seabees, and Marines are a delight, and their musical numbers are rousing and fun, serving to shake up the dramatic mood pieces that permeate the show’s romantic plots.
Of particular note is the jazzy musical number “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” which also showcases one of the production’s most intriguing set designs, a large water basin and false shower. The set design, overall, is evocative and top-notch. The stage is littered with piers and bamboo mats and includes matte landscapes.
Kevin Harger, who plays Luther Billis, is particularly entertaining, and seems to be having the most fun of all the actors. Also impressive is Cable’s progression from rigid military officer to relatable human being, which Jason Dowies plays with aplomb. Claire Toney’s Liat is surprisingly well developed for a character who does not appear until near the end of the show’s first act, and Josiah “Professor” Bryan really “pops” on stage. Gerard Killebrew, who plays Emile de Becque, has a voice that could rattle a mountain, and his duets with Dana Todd Lux are a delight. It is impossible to give individual acknowledgement to everyone, but this cast is definitely one of the best that I have seen locally.
I was unsure how I felt about actress Dana Todd Lux at first, but I came to realize that my issues were with Nellie Forbush, not the actress behind her. The problem with the Nellie character is that she has no real definition outside of being “the female protagonist.” People go out of their way to do things for her, and characters are shuttled about by the unseen hand of plot contrivance to put them into positions to interact with her – for instance, Luther Billis makes sure to warm some water for Nellie’s shampooing, but only Nellie, and none of the other nurses, for the simple purpose of setting up the musical number.
The fictional universe that Nellie inhabits contorts to fit her, and thus it is difficult to sympathize with her fickle romanticism. She loves Emile despite his dark past, until Cable talks to her about a letter from her mother, at which point she decides to end her relationship. Then, after a single dinner party, she decides that maybe she does love Emile, until his racially-mixed children appear, and her deep-fried Southern disgust causes her to run off into the night like a madwoman.
Lux, though a fine performer, is difficult to believe in the role of Nellie. From the third row, it is obvious that the lovely and talented actress is playing a character so much younger than herself (22 in Michener’s book) that it makes Nellie seem like an adult moron. Her naïveté is not charming, and it makes the racism that the character overcomes seem more deeply ingrained and unlikely to change. Lux is no ingénue, and thus her innocent, “cockeyed” smile makes the willing suspension of disbelief a challenge.
However, if you are a devotee of musical theatre, then you are already willing to ignore – nay, enjoy – the lack of realism that is inherent in the world of the musical, that fantasy place where ambitions, dreams, emotions, fears, and every internalized human drive is dictated through song. Thus, you have no reason not to enjoy South Pacific.