The Pacific, Bloody Mary and World War II Back Again

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, plays, South Pacific

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

There are a number of productions of the Oscar Hammerstein – Richard Rodgers musical South Pacific lately. Lincoln Center in New York staged it in 2008 and it was quite successful. That spurred the premiers of the play in dozens of cities throughout the United States, from Florida to California. It is part renewed interest in a great musical and continued interest in World War II, that has been with us since the 50th anniversary of the war in the 1990s.

The version of South Pacific at the Paper Mill is surely one of the best. It has a lush staging, with a marvelous military base, plantation home and beach sets, projections of South Pacific maps and islands and gorgeous costumes. There is a hot, tropical, languid look to it, the perfect backdrop for some of the best songs ever written.

South Pacific is the tale of a backwash island in the New Hebrides where thousands of American sailors wait for something to happen in their area of the world. Nothing does. They spend their time flirting with native girls, staging camp musicals, selling black market goods and illicitly sneaking over to Bali Hai island, where young French girls are said to live.

It is also the story of a love affair between a young navy nurse from Arkansas, Nellie Forbush, and a forty-ish French planter, Emil de Becque, who fled to the island after murdering a man back in France. The pair met at a dance and fell in love.

The play was an immediate hit when it first opened in 1949 and has remained a classic musical ever since. The story and romance are solid, but what audiences have always treasured are the songs. There are a dozen or so that remain favorites today, and probably always will. They are led, of course, by Some Enchanted Evening. There is also There Is Nothin' Like a Dame, I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair Cockeyed Optimist, Bloody Mary, Bali Ha'i, I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy, Younger than Springtime and Happy Talk.

Choreographer Ralph Perkins has done a marvelous job with the musical numbers. He is careful to spread the dancing across the entire stage and utilize his large chorus of dancers well. They bound from around jeeps, swing on trees and march down the beach. He has added a lot of color and splash to the show.

The something happens.

South Pacific is based on novelist James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, printed in 1948. Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted several of its short stories, with Joshua Logan helping them on the book. The military setting is a nice backdrop for the love story and its luscious songs.

Michener was a Lt. Commander in the New Hebrides in World War II. The fictional stories he wrote used actual islands and events as backdrop for his stories. The naval operations that resulted in the battle of the Coral Sea and the taking of Guadalcanal were disguised as ‘operation alligator’ in the play. The story of Bloody Mary and the romance between Nellie and Emil were taken from several different stories in the book. Rodger and Hammerstein also created some characters and merged others. Some were slightly changed. De Becque, as an example,had one Polynesian wife and two kids in the musical, but in the book he had four wives and eight children. De Becque is the island coast watcher in the musical, but in the book it was an Englishman.

In actual history, the work of the Navy and Seabees, and Michener’s colleagues, paved the way for the Battle of the Coral Sea, but in the book the action stops when that invasion starts. The play also limits the activity to two love stories and camp life, but the book tells a more complete and sprawling story. In real history, the island where the base was located was Espiritu Santo.

The New Hebrides are northeast of Australia. America had to control them to provide a sea route from Hawaii to Australia. Thousands of Naval personnel and Seabees were sent there for that purpose.

Director Rob Ruggiero took his time with the play and, right in the middle, he underscores the racism theme that many productions overlook. It is what makes this staging special and drives home the point that there was severe racism in World War II. It was there in the segregated U.S. military units, which everyone knows about, but there was American racism against Polynesian people, which few people discuss. This is evident in act one, when Nellie, from Little Rock, the scene of a military forced integration of the schools ten years later, is startled to learn that Emil’s now dead former wife, and mother of his adorable children, was Polynesian. She is revolted and storms out of his house. Soon after, a naval Lt. Cable pulls away from his Polynesian lover, Liat, because of her race. He explains that he could never marry her and take her back to America in a sorrowful song. The scenes on racism are usually ignored because everyone is so busy listening to the music.

Director Ruggiero gets fine performances from the entire cast. Particularly good are Erin Mackey s Nellie and Mike McGowan as Emil de Becque. They bring the house down with their rendition of Some Enchanted Evening. There are also winning performance from Tally Sessons as Luther Billis, Doug Carpenter as Lt. Cable, Bob Richardson and Jordan Lage as the two commanding officers.

Loretta Ables Sayre, who played Bloody Mary in the New York 2008 production, is back. Ms. Sayre, with a stage persona as big as the whole Pacific, steals the show at certain points with her singing (Bali Hai) and her inscrutable wit, delivered with her big, brash voice.

You’ve seen South Pacific on some stage or on television? See it again.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Sets: Michael Yeargan, Costumes: Catherine Zuber, Lighting: John Lasiter, Sound: Randy Hansen, Musical Director: Brad Haak. The play is directed by Rob Ruggiero. The play runs through May 4.

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