Steering ‘South Pacific’ toward realism
NEW YORK - “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,’’ that anthem of lustful yearning, reverberates inside a rehearsal hall in midtown Manhattan, where a touring production of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific’’ is in its third week of prep. The athletic young men of the musical’s ensemble, playing a band of hardened Seabees, boisterously stomp and circle around the studio, their voices projecting a bawdy desire for the tender touch of the fairer sex as World War II rages around them.
Rising from crouching positions scattered around the room, the guys gravitate to the center in a mass of bodies, then rush forward in a cluster to the front of the space. Moments later, as the song comes to a rousing climax, they raise their arms in the air, then collapse onto the floor in a frustrated heap.
The show’s director, Sarna Lapine, praises her cast’s dynamic energy but wastes no time doling out notes. Most importantly, she reminds them that the show’s original director and co-author, Joshua Logan, who served in World War II, described the affection-starved, hormone-addled Seabees as “pacing like lions’’ - a quality they still haven’t captured to her satisfaction.
“We’re not there yet,’’ Lapine cautions the assembled throng. “I don’t feel the hunger and the lust and the longing in the song. We need to see more of that.’’
While she’s pleased with the actors’ progress, she wants them to bring a sharp realism to their characters - to tap into their desires and dreams, fears and anxieties. Her sense of urgency is palpable. She has only one more week to get the show up on its feet before preview performances begin in Waterbury, Conn. The new tour of the show, which officially debuts at the Boston Opera House on Tuesday in a weeklong run, is based on Bartlett Sher’s masterful Lincoln Center Theater revival from 2008 that captured seven Tony Awards, including best revival of a musical.
Without Sher steering the ship this time (he’s checking in occasionally) and with a new, young cast, Lapine and musical stager Joe Langworth are scrambling to generate the same heat and crackling chemistry that made the Lincoln Center production such a revelation. It helps, of course, that Lapine and Langworth both worked directly under Sher and choreographer Christopher Gattelli on the Broadway production and its first tour. (And Lapine has been Sher’s go-to assistant director since his 2005 staging of “The Light in the Piazza.’’)
Sure, “South Pacific’’ conjures up sentimental images of exotic adventure, sweeping romance, and comedic hijinks. But during an interview at a rehearsal break, Lapine points out that Logan, a Stanislavski disciple, always strove for naturalism.
“I think it’s about finding the truth of the real experience inside the story and the characters and what they’re going through,’’ says Lapine, niece of the famed Broadway director and Tony-winning librettist James Lapine. In a previous life, she was a mountaineering and rock climbing instructor, where she first learned the team-building skills useful for directing. “We want to help the actors understand what it was like to be a young man or a woman in this war in the 1940s, because we’re so far away from that time now,’’ she says.
Langworth, who’s staging the musical numbers, explains that because people instantly know the show’s iconic songs - including “Bali Ha’i’’ and “Some Enchanted Evening’’ - a danger exists that the musical sequences will distance audiences from the intended realism.
“You don’t want the audience to all of a sudden see a Seabee and go, ‘Oh, OK . . . now he’s dancing? Why is that Seabee dancing?’ ’’ he says. “We don’t want the audience to ever lose that belief in and connection with the characters and the truth of what they were going through.’’
What the characters endure is the loneliness and anxiety of being in a strange land and the yearning for human connection. Set on a lush tropical island, the show centers on a pair of unlikely romances. Irrepressible Arkansas beauty Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse, falls for her “wonderful guy,’’ French plantation owner Emile de Becque. But when Nellie discovers that de Becque’s two children are mixed-raced - born from his romance with a native woman, now deceased - she’s overcome by her own racial prejudices and pushes him away.
Meanwhile, a strapping US Marine, Lieutenant Joseph Cable, arrives on the island for a dangerous spy mission. Despite his own prejudices, a romance between him and Tonkinese island girl Liat blossoms. But Cable realizes that his blue-blooded family back home would never accept Liat as his wife, and he tells her that they cannot marry.
In a phone interview, Sher says he saw the script, which was awarded the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for drama, as an American version of one of Shakespeare’s history plays because it’s based on real events and explores an aspect of our experience as a nation. “It seemed to have both in its sound and its story something pretty core to the American experience - our eternal optimism, our ability to overcome serious obstacles and to undergo transformation,’’ Sher says.
While “South Pacific’’ played for more than 1,900 performances in its original 1949-54 engagement and was adapted for the big screen in 1958, Sher’s production (which ran for more than two years) marked the show’s first Broadway revival.
Sher says subsequent productions - on tour and in regional theaters - seemed to gloss over the story’s darker elements. Understandably, Lapine says, American culture “wanted to move away from World War II at a certain point. So the show became very nostalgic, in a way. And I think our job was to hook it all up again by going back to the text.’’
Those darker elements include the mounting tensions of war and Nellie and Cable’s internal struggles to overcome the bigotry with which they’ve been raised. The creative team also researched post-traumatic stress disorder to better understand Cable, who represents the man on the front lines. They fashioned subtle pieces of staging based on historical details - for instance, the way the African-American Seabees are segregated from the other men.
Sher also reinserted three or four pages of dialogue that had been cut from the original 1949 production during its out-of-town tryout at Boston’s Colonial Theatre. “There were scenes in which the characters were a little bit more pointed about their racism,’’ he says. “Whole sections between Emile and Nellie, in which she uses the word ‘colored,’ had been cut. I think putting all of that back in really helps push the show along.’’
Despite Nellie’s bigotry, the creative team worked hard to ensure that audiences never lose their affection for the spunky heroine. “We want the audience to look at this woman who has flaws but not feel alienated from her and still root for her to grow and change,’’ Langworth says. “We can then ask ourselves, can we as human beings grow and learn and ultimately change? I think she proves that we can.’’
Indeed, both Sher and Lapine say that “South Pacific’’ asks us to think about who we are as a nation and to look at the social transformations that have taken place over the past 60 years. “In World War II, it wasn’t a Red State-Blue State issue. It was that we were all Americans, and we were all in this together,’’ she says. “In some ways, that’s a very alien idea to us today, because we feel very divided.’’
Echoes Sher, “When you go back to a history play, you find some of the reasons that people learned to hold things together through difficult times and then changed for the better. We tried to overcome the problem of racism and actually got somewhere. So right now, when it feels like we’re not making progress as a nation, and the conversation is getting more and more contentious, it’s good to see how it’s possible that things can be better.’’
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@ gmail.com