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Escape Election Overload And Societal Burnout At Philly’s Walnut Street Theatre’s “South Pacific”



Is the coverage of the upcoming election overwhelming you? Perhaps even terrifying or numbing you? Is the rage and violence here and worldwide leading to an overwhelming dose of burnout? As a Philly transplant from Baltimore, who has lived in this wonderful city since the mid-1960s, I am so proud of our vast cultural opportunities. You will find so much to explore, and specifically now you will so enjoy an uplifting and lush nearly three-hour experience in Self-Care indulgence in hope, beauty, enchantment, and reason as you feast on South Pacific, brought to life at our downtown Walnut Street Theatre. South Pacific will be playing through October 23. (For tickets and nearby dining recommendations call 215 574 3550.)

The plot progression of South Pacific unfolds seamlessly in the Walnut Street production, directed by Charles Abbott. To those who cannot picture South Pacific without Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza or other later magical collaborations, be assured — this Philadelphia cast and company more than holds their own. (But before continuing Spoiler Alert: Much of the plot will be shared.)

The play opens with an eye-catching montage background of American men and women stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. Attractively created staging moves with ease from scene to scene. Costuming is exacting. Sets shift back and forth from French Emile de Becque’s (Paul Schoeffler) exotic, palatial hillside gardens, where we first see love unfold between the him and Little Rock Arkansas nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kate Fahrner), to palm trees and shacks. Here a determined, delightful, and almost toothless Bloody Mary (Lori Tan Chinn), her face stained by beetle juice, who adores profanity learned from the GIs entices enlisted men and officers to buy her grass skirts, shrunken heads, and other “treasures.” Here also is where a period jeep is driven twice, and Nellie’s shower with running water and shampoo is installed. The most heart-breaking scenes occur on a beautifully depicted and staged Bali Ha’i.

Music and vocal direction by John Daniels and choreography by Michelle Gaudette, blend with dialogue to bring the audience the full impact of the haunting, piercing, unforgettable genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Exquisitely timely to this day, in two compelling acts, the audience experiences a poignant story of fear, prejudice, love and loss during a time of turbulence and danger.

Nellie, an utterly and dearly unsophisticated young nurse (“A Cockeyed Optimist”) from Little Rock, falls deeply in love with Emile (I’m in Love With A Wonderful Guy”), an alluring, sophisticated (middle-aged – but the years are exceedingly kind) expatriate French plantation owner determined to pursue her. The couple recall their meeting at the Officers’ Club (“Some Enchanted Evening”) and Nellie asks Emile why he has chosen such an isolated home. Emile responds truthfully that he has escaped to his island home after murdering a power hungry bully who was destroying his French community.

What Nellie is not told is that Emile has two adorable young children, Ngana and Jerome (who open the show with “Dites-Moi”), and their mother, now deceased, was Polynesian. Even before learning this, however, we witness Nellie’s strong fear of the cultural differences between Emile, which cause her to decide to distance herself (“I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair”), something that she is unable to do. However, following a dinner party, where Emile introduces Nellie to his charming and welcoming friends, she meets his children and is told by Emile of his first wife. Nellie flees, unable to deal with Emile’s marriage to a “black woman” or the reality of his multi-cultural children.

The audience follows still another love affair, this one with a tragic conclusion. Hoping to spare her beautiful, young, virginal daughter, Liat, a tragic marriage to a wealthy aging alcoholic, as soon as Lt. Joe Cable arrives on the island on a dangerous spy mission, Mary does all in her power to orchestrate (“Happy Talk”) a meeting between him and Liat, with their marriage and her daughter’s protection her key objective. Love immediately consumes them both when Cable journeys to the magnificent Bali Ha’I (“Bali Ha’I”) and meets Liat (“Younger Than Springtime”).

The audience bears witness as deeply ingrained prejudice rears its ugly head for both Joe Cable and Nellie (“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”). Unable to marry a man who once had a black wife and bore their children, Nellie asks for a transfer to another base. Even though Cable does not love his hometown fiancĂ© and dreads the work that awaits him there, in like manner, he cannot conceive of marrying the Tonkinese girl he dearly loves.

Rejected by Nellie, Emile (“This Nearly Was Mine”), who at first declined when his love of Nellie seemed safe and protected, decides to join Cable on a highly dangerous mission to a Japanese-held island, where they can report the enemy ship movements. The goal of the mission is successful, but Cable dies, and the whereabouts of Emile remain unknown until the play’s conclusion.

As tragic events unfold, comedic relief is provided by superb song and dance synchronization of ensemble and supporting cast. Especially noteworthy is Luther Billis’s (Fran Frisco), rendition of “Honey Bun,” (introduced by Nellie dressed in sailor whites), where he enters in grass skirt, blond wig, and a coconut-shell bra, and earlier his “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” with all sailors, seabees and marines.

There is but one thing I wish had been different in this skillful production: When Emile returns to his home where he finds Nellie who, not knowing if he is dead or alive, has become completely devoted to his children, I wish we in the audience had a few minutes longer to experience her change before his arrival on stage. I wish also that before joining her Emile had stopped for a longer period to privately experience a truth that Rodgers and Hammerstein courageously brought to the stage in 1949: Yes, you have to be taught, and the best way to learn is through love.

Do visit and experience the love in this fine production, and also, for those who have not visited us before, see for yourselves the love and sincere welcome Philadelphians offer our visitors.

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