Love and war in South Pacific
The weather may be getting colder, but visitors to the Benedum Center can prepare to melt. Originally based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Tales of the South Pacific, the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific is now playing in Pittsburgh. First performed in 1949, the play’s revival proves that the musical is as timeless as ever. As in any great story, the musical seamlessly explores deeper messages amid a background of laughter, light-heartedness, and love, creating one enchanting evening for audience members.
Conducting the largest orchestra of any touring show, Carnegie Mellon alumnus Larry Goldberg directs the sweeping musical numbers, setting the stage for the production. As he begins to conduct, the lights darken and the prologue introduces the audience to the time — World War II — and the place — the South Pacific.
A regiment of the United States Navy has been stationed on an island in order to aid in the war effort against the Japanese. Lieutenant Joseph Cable (played by Carnegie Mellon alumnus Anderson Davis) arrives on the island, following instructions to solicit the help of a French plantation owner, Emile de Becque (played by David Pittsinger), who used to own property on a nearby Japanese-held island. Cable needs de Becque’s knowledge of the island in order to successfully infiltrate it and gain intelligence on Japanese ship movements.
As Cable attempts to convince de Becque to come with him, two love stories emerge. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (played by Carmen Cusack) falls in love with Emile de Becque. A small-town girl from Little Rock, Ark., she complements the worldly and somewhat jaded de Becque. Their voices also join together beautifully, particularly highlighted when they sing the duet “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Lieutenant Cable falls in love with a young native islander named Liat (played by Sumie Maeda). His longing for her is illustrated in “Younger than Springtime.” However, for both couples, the war is not the primary obstacle to their relationships. Prejudice and racism are what truly hold the pairs apart. The song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” touches upon the problems of racism in society with pertinent lyrics like, “You’ve got to be taught/To hate and fear/You’ve got to be taught/From year to year.”
During the intermission, audience members could not hold back their adoration for the performance. Audience member Pam Wigely raved that it was “Fabulous! Amazing! A real credit to the Carnegie Mellon alumni.” Wigely grew up with the show, and for her it was “a joy to see it back.”
Small details are what really suck the audience into the story. In a scene that takes place on Thanksgiving, the nurses wear turkey feathers cut out of Life magazine pages. During a pause in the festivities, Nellie reflects for a moment on what she’s thankful for. For an audience watching the show in the 1940s or the present, the sentiment still strikes a chord.
South Pacific will continue to be relevant because its themes are timeless. In the face of war and social problems, the characters must show resilience and face what is to come. With its sincerity, humor, and depth, South Pacific will make you feel “as high as a kite in July” and ache to journey to the mysterious Bali Ha’i.