The first thing I noticed upon entering Olney Theatre Center was the abundance of tropical attire. Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and floral blazers covered patrons of all ages. The vast and beautiful lobby was filled with theatregoers itching to see Rodgers and Hammerstien’s South Pacific directed by Alan Muraoka.
For those unfamiliar with the show, South Pacific is a 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about love and bigotry in the midst of World War II. Nellie Forbush is a U.S. Navy nurse stationed on an island in the South Pacific where she falls in love with an older, sophisticated French Planter with two Polynesian children, Emile de Becque (William Michals). Meanwhile, a U.S. Marine, Lieutenant Joe Cable (Alex Prakken), also finds romance in the Pacific, with a native girl named Liat (Alexandra Palting). The show takes a turn towards political commentary as the two Americans struggle with feelings of racial prejudice towards their loved ones.
South Pacific is an absolute classic. It’s so much of a classic that octogenarians will dress like teens on vacation to celebrate its opening night, and audience members will quietly sing along with the actors from their seats (and nail every word if the Scottish woman sitting behind me was any indication). But how does such a classic hold up almost 70 years after its debut?
In a note to the audience, Olney’s artistic director, Jason Loewith, writes that in today’s political climate, an “optimistic view of the play’s sell-by date can no longer be admitted.” Here, Loewith, who was influenced to produce South Pacific after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rallies, insists that despite the desire to believe we live in a post-racial society, the musical’s politics are as relevant as ever. I don’t disagree with Loewith on this note, but perhaps his view of the play itself might be a little too “optimistic.”
South Pacific might be a warning against racism, but it’s also undeniably orientalist. Take everyone’s favorite souvenir saleslady, Bloody Mary (Cheryl J. Campo). She sells grass skirts and shrunken heads to tourists for a steep price, and much of her humor comes from her thick accent and money-centric attitude. Campo does an excellent job with the part, but there’s no denying that Bloody Mary is a classic caricature of Asians and Pacific Islanders right down to the ‘crafty’ stereotype.
There’s also Liat, who will be married off to an abusive islander if the white Lieutenant doesn’t save her. Liat doesn’t speak English. In fact, she barely speaks at all. She’s often called a “child” despite being old enough to marry, and is presented as an exotic, naïve beauty. Like Bloody Mary, her depiction is stereotypical and two-dimensional.
I don’t say this to suggest that South Pacific should never be done. After all, it has its valuable moments, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” is a profound take on the learned quality of racism. But it is not enough to see these valuable moments. Directors who wish to produce South Pacific also need to navigate all of the play’s orientalizing moments and rethink characters such as Bloody Mary and Liat.
Olney’s disappointingly traditional portrayal of the Pacific and its inhabitants, stain what is otherwise a lively production. Bell’s Nellie is deliciously buoyant and “knuckleheaded,” capturing the Little Rock native down to her flawless “hick” accent. And though I think Lieutenant Cable was a bit stiff starting out, by the second act he is spitting with emotion. Literally, in once scene he sobs so ferociously that I swear you can see him drool a little: the mark of a truly committed performance if you ask me.
But the real standout of the musical is David Schlumpf as Luther Billis, leading the ensemble of goofy Seabees and charming nurses. The whole crew is thoroughly delightful to watch in numbers like “There’s Nothing Like a Dame” and “Honey Bun,” a wonderful Thanksgiving drag folly that ends with each ensemble member on stage dressed as different parts of a Thanksgiving day feast.
Such costumes show off designer Ivania Stack’s immense creativity throughout the show. Stack captures the essence of each character to a tee. In military musicals it’s always easy to fall back on uniforms, but Stack does no such thing. Every single lead and ensemble member has a costume that reflects a unique personality with a single glance.
The set, designed by Paige Hathaway, is also clever and striking. A backdrop of patchwork patterns and maps divided by bamboo detail places us directly in the midst of each new moment. Max Doolittle’s lights work in beautiful conjunction with the scenic design as well. Not only does an excellent use of leafy gobos and warm colors add to the tropical atmosphere, but spotlights on specific patterns and areas of the map also inform the audience of any changes in setting. For example, when our characters plunge into war, the lights rotate between depictions of missiles and planes.
Tech like this makes me want to return to Olney Theatre Center. The acting, design, and music all show that they’re capable of strong performances. Unfortunately, South Pacific lacks a fresh take on the old classic, a fresh take which was very much needed to keep this musical relevant.