Quite frankly, says Music Theatre Wichita’s Wayne Bryan, the reason “South Pacific” hasn’t been staged by his group in 19 years is that it “got the reputation of being dated.”
Of course, it didn’t help that a too-artsy, somewhat tepid 1958 film version with singing voices dubbed for three lead characters was snubbed by New York critics as “a three-hour ruin of a magnificent musical.”
And a 2001 TV remake with Glenn Close starring as a too-mature nurse Nellie Forbush only added to the feeling that the award-winning 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein masterwork should now just be heard for its magnificent musicality rather than seen.
But all that changed for Bryan, MTWichita’s producing artistic director now starting his 27th year, when he caught the 2008 revival at Lincoln Center – starring Music Theatre alum Kelli O’Hara as Nellie – that brought “South Pacific” back to Broadway for the first time in nearly 60 years.
“It was brought back with such integrity that it truly felt like a new show. It was more a restoration than a revival,” says Bryan, who had worked with Richard Rodgers in New York in 1975 as a performer and knew Oscar Hammerstein’s disappointment at having to soften certain racial topics for original audiences.
“When it opened in 1949, it was a contemporary show for audiences who had just lived through World War II. It was celebratory of a ‘good war,’ even though embedded in the story were some pretty strong truths about discrimination and racial harmony,” Bryan says.
“The 2008 revival opened up topics and dialogue that had been toned down. It took away the picture postcard element and shook off the soft fuzz of nostalgia to reveal the details. The conflicts are now really clear. It’s astonishing how relevant it still is. Back then, they were debating interracial marriage. Today, it’s the same debate, but just about a different civil right (marriage equality). We’ve come a long way in 65 years, but maybe not as far as we think.”
Since that revival, Bryan has eagerly been trying to get the rights to the show but couldn’t because of the Broadway run and ensuing tours – until this year.
“South Pacific” opens Wednesday to kick off the 43rd season for Music Theatre Wichita and runs through Sunday in Century II Concert Hall.
Based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” the show weaves characters and plotlines from various Michener tales into one interlocking story about impressionable young Americans’ experiences, both military and romantic, on two exotic tropical islands during war time.
In one case, a naive Navy nurse from Arkansas becomes infatuated with a worldly, middle-aged French planter with a shadowy past, and in another a Marine from a privileged Philadelphia family falls for a beautiful Polynesian girl. In both, the romantic feelings are frustrated by American society’s attitudes about race.
Erin Mackey, making her MTWichita debut, plays bubbly Nurse Nellie, and Mike McGowan, last here in 2009’s “Kiss Me Kate,” is mysterious planter Emile de Becque. Ryan Vasquez, back for his second year in the resident company, is Lt. Joe Cable, and Shea Rennie is his forbidden love, Liat.
Other major players include Joanne Javien as Bloody Mary, Liat’s boisterous, horse-trading, match-making mother, and J. Bailey Burcham as conniving Seabee Luther Billis, Mary’s main rival, who sets up a thriving black market business on the islands.
Bryan is directing his first of two shows this season. Thomas W. Douglas, returning for his 15th season as music director, will lead a 27-member orchestra – the largest this year – through the iconic score that includes “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “There Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” Billy Sprague Jr., who got his professional start with MTWichita two decades ago, is back as choreographer, providing what he describes as “masculine horseplay” rather than “turned out ballet” for the Seabees.
For Mackey, McGowan and Javien, this production is a reunion of sorts. All three were in the recent Paper Mill Playhouse production of “South Pacific” and are bringing their already established camaraderie to the Wichita stage.
“It’s fun to have that familiarity. But while a lot of things are the same, including the set and costumes, it still feels different,” says McGowan, a South Dakota native now based in New York. “The age of the ensemble is younger (like real WWII fighters), giving us a poignancy that New York didn’t have.”
For actress Mackey, a Southern California native who spent 3½ years as Glinda the giddy good witch of “Wicked” from Chicago to Broadway and on a national tour, playing Nurse Nelly “wasn’t really on my radar.”
“I didn’t know the show well,” says Mackey, who was on Broadway most recently as Oona O’Neill in “Chaplin: The Musical.”
“But I came to love Nellie as I followed her wonderful journey through the show. She’s flawed, but she’s a product of her time. She would have been born in the 1920s and raised in Arkansas before the civil rights era. She was 23 in the story. She was funny, silly and a little naive. If she hadn’t joined the Navy and become a nurse, she probably would never have known her true feelings,” Mackey says.
“She had to face being an adult and thinking for herself. At one point, she surprises herself at her reaction (to discovering that her sweetheart has mixed-race children). In the book, she says it’s ‘visceral,’ that it affected her physically. She knows she has to get beyond that. I used to think of Nellie in terms of her songs like ‘A Wonderful Guy’ and ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,’ but she gets into some really deep, thoughtful stuff.”
McGowan, too, admits that he had some incorrect impressions about Emile the planter before he was cast.
“I grew up thinking of him as a cultured Frenchman who drank cognac and wore an ascot. I thought of him like Robert Goulet or Louis Jourdan,” says the actor whose Broadway resume includes roles in “Ragtime” and “Grease” as well as in the national tour of “The Book of Mormon.”
“But as I got into the character, I discovered that while he is educated and loves beautiful things, he’s not a refined or effete man. He’s not blase. He gets excited about things, like Nellie does. He’s incredibly passionate and impulsive. I love that passion. I share his passion personally, but I’m not as impulsive,” McGowan says.
There’s more to Bloody Mary than just comic relief, notes actress Javien, another Southern California native who is also making her MTWichita debut after a national tour of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
“She appears so cartoon-like and sort of scary when you first see her. Before, I didn’t really think about her range. But she has become so human to me. You see the fun times with the sailors, but there is also the love for her daughter and the desperation to give her a better life than she had. There is the disappointment and the anger of what she has to put up with,” Javien says.
“What I really like about her is that she has no filter. She will tell you what she’s thinking – no problem. In a time and culture when women didn’t speak up, she puts herself out there because she has to.”
For actor Vasquez, his character of Lt. Cable has perhaps the most treacherous and heart-breaking life journey because he must confront his own hypocrisy.
“Joe is a young, ambitious, privileged kid from a liberal Philadelphia family who was always given everything he asked for. When he falls for a Polynesian girl, he throws caution to the wind and thinks he can do anything,” says Vasquez, who graduated from the University of Michigan and joined MTWichita in 2012 where he was featured in “9 to 5,” “Legally Blonde” and “Honk!” Later this season, he’ll be featured as Tony in “West Side Story” and Pharaoh in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
“But Joe is also a product of his environment. He says he can’t marry her, but in a sardonic way, because they wouldn’t fit in as a couple back in America in their big, gray stone house. His song ‘You Have to Be Carefully Taught’ (about discrimination) was so controversial at one time that some people thought it should be left out of the show, but Oscar Hammerstein refused,” Vasquez says.
“The island of Bali Ha’i represents the perfect place they could be free to be together. He wants to bring back ideas from that perfect place to change social norms,” Vasquez says. “He sees that Emile is already color-blind in those matters, but Joe has to go through a huge shift. I like that he’s wanting to change.”