'South Pacific' brings eye-catching sets to Oregon City
"South Pacific" is a beloved musical with classic songs that have resonated with audiences since it was first produced on Broadway in 1949. Now, Clackamas Repertory Theatre is bringing the colorful piece to life from Aug. 1-25 at the Osterman Theatre on campus at Clackamas Community College.
The action takes place on a military outpost in the South Pacific during World War II. There are two simultaneous love stories: Nellie Forbush, a young nurse in the U. S. Navy, and Emile de Bec, A middle-aged expatriate Frenchman; and Liat, a teenage Tonkinese native, and Lt. Joseph Cable, an officer in the U.S. Marines.
"The outcomes of these two love stories are very different in large part due to the options for women during the era," said Jayne Stevens, who is co-directing "South Pacific" along with Wesley Robert Hanson.
Stevens said there are two reasons why CRT is staging the musical.
"Many people who were alive during WWII are not with us anymore, so we wanted to do this in honor of them," she said.
Also, "South Pacific" is "relevant to what is going on in the world now. Much of the conflict in the musical is still happening today, including racism, war and globalization," she said. "The U.S. military was fighting for freedom in the South Pacific, while its own citizens faced racism and a lack of freedoms at home."
And it is the racism in the musical that have caused it to become known as a "problem play," Stevens said, principally because of the character of Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese woman and mother of Liat, and the language used to describe the Japanese military.
"It is important for audiences to hear the hateful language because it was the way the U.S. dealt with the war. It's important to not forget the history, in hopes that we cannot repeat it," she said. "The character of Bloody Mary is often portrayed as a caricature and becomes a racist trope. We have cast a very talented actor who was born in Hawaii, and her portrayal of Bloody Mary is moving and powerful," Stevens said.
She noted that the 28 actors in the cast play nurses, soldiers and natives, and seeing the characters come to life on stage has been rewarding.
Emile and Nellie
Michael Sharon, an equity actor who has worked for Portland Center Stage and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, plays Emile. Kelly Sina, last seen at CRT as Marion in "The Music Man," plays Nellie.
The two fall in love, but tensions arise because Emile once had a relationship with a Polynesian woman and has mixed-race children.
"Emile is not ashamed of his past, but he has come to this isolated island in the South Pacific to leave it behind him," Sharon said.
Through his relationship with Nellie, Emile discovers you can't run away from the shadows in your past, he added.
His character is "honorable and a man of deep passions and emotions. I have a lot of respect for him as a character," Sharon said.
As for the racial overtones in "South Pacific," he said that in the first act, the audience finds out that Nellie has prejudices, and it will be difficult for them to figure out how to feel about her.
"This is an intense theatrical experience; there are issues not resolved at the end of the play," Sharon said. "Storytelling can expand our world view, our empathy. It is how we can reach people more deeply, rather than preaching to them, or pounding them over the head."
As for Nellie, Sina said her character describes herself as a "cockeyed optimist."
She is a small-town girl who wants to see the world and "she is very strong in her own beliefs. I love her positivity."
The music in "South Pacific" is "still beautiful to listen to" and the fact that many of the storylines are based on truth gives the musical its historical aspect, Sina said.
Her favorite number is when she sings "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" because it "showcases the camaraderie that the women feel."
Lt. Cable, Seabee Luther Billis
Adam Davis, who in real life is Sina's husband, plays Cable. His character is complicated and an "upstanding patriot. He is hot headed and makes snap decisions," Davis said.
Cable is also conflicted about his love for Liat because of her race, her youth, her exotic beauty — all of which would have been taboo in 1942.
In dallying with the young girl, he is "doing something he is not supposed to do — and it is not for love," Davis said.
People should come see the show because it "really addresses important issues, and the play makes it a safe place to look at ugly things," he said.
As an actor, his duty is to tell the truth, even if it is uncomfortable to do so — that is his favorite part of acting, Davis added.
Joshua Johnson plays Luther Billis, an entrepreneurial sailor. His job is to get all the laundry done on the base, but he sees himself as also being in charge of the entertainment.
"He's a little rough around the edges, a little mischievous," Johnson said. His favorite scene in the show is when all the military men sing "There is Nothing Like a Dame" because "it gives the audience an idea about what is going through the sailors' minds," he said.
But seriously, "South Pacific" provides good insight into what was happening during World War II, Johnson said, adding that the language in the play accurately portrays the culture in that part of the world during the war.
He added that his favorite part of working on the musical has been working with "incredible actors" and reuniting with the directors and some cast members from last year's CRT production of "Annie."
Like Billis, the character of Bloody Mary is an entrepreneur who sells leis, fruit and flowers to the military personnel on the base, even though she has been told not to.
"I love her boldness; she is strong and brave," said Kelsey Hoeffel, who plays the character.
"She is very smart and uses her charms to sweet talk and make deals," she added.
Hoeffel said she used her background being Hawaii-born to help her portray Bloody Mary.
"The Polynesian people are welcoming; there is a magical feel about their island, their traditions. The sharing of their culture is important to them," she said.
There are racist overtones where Bloody Mary is concerned, as she is a native and has a plan to marry her daughter to Cable, "a white, well-bred" man.
But there is "huge tension" in the relationship, because Cable can't get past the fact that Liat is Tonkinese, and he also has a fiancée back home in Philadelphia.
That aside, audiences will love the music in "South Pacific," and the sets and costumes will take them to a different time and place.
"Our directors talked to us about what it is like to go on vacation and step off a plane or boat and smell the salty air and hear the waves crashing on the beach," Hoeffel said. "We are going to transport the audience to another world."
Enjoy an enchanted evening!
What: Clackamas Repertory Theatre presents "South Pacific"
When: Aug. 1-25; performances take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays.
Where: Osterman Theatre at Clackamas Community College, 19600 Molalla Ave., Oregon City
Tickets: To purchase tickets, visit clackamasrep.org or call 503-594-6047.
Lecture: One hour before every performance, Dr. Jackie Flowers will present a free lecture entitled "The Romantic Myth of the South Pacific: World War II Servicemen in the South Sea Islands."
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