Arts & Entertainment Editor
A new season, an American classic and a Greensboro theater.
Sept. 17 kicked off the 2017-2018 season of Triad Stage with the theater’s largest production to date – “South Pacific.”
This production is directed by Preston Lane, the founding artistic director of the Triad Stage, and is in partnership with UNCG’s Concert and Lecture Series. “South Pacific” will run until Oct. 15.
With a sold-out matinee showing on Sunday, the cast came out to deliver a theatrical performance on par with Off-Broadway theaters. From the set to singing, this production was highly professional, with a plot covertly relevant to today’s political and social climate.
“South Pacific” is a Rodgers and Hammerstein original, set on an island during WWII in which two love stories unfold. Nellie, a Midwestern nurse, falls deeply in love with a French plantation owner named Emile, while Lt. Cable finds himself in utter adoration towards Liat, a young Tonkinese woman. Both Nellie and Lt. Cable suffer from a learned prejudice for ethnic differences, drawing their relationships and futures into question.
This production of “South Pacific” was set in a constant structure like an airport hangar that spread the entire ceiling of the stage, making it have an inside effect. A versatile map of the South Pacific was placed above an entry to the hangar and opened to reveal the orchestra located inside a loft. Unlike many Triad Stage productions, the orchestra was only shown twice – making them a forgotten part of the performance.
With a large fixed structure, there was limited space on stage; however, simulated light designs were substituted for physical props. Black and white videos of the South Pacific and airplanes were also utilized to create a 1940s, World War II scenery.
However, innovative staging is nothing without a professional and well-rehearsed cast. This production showcased some outstanding performances by Kristin Wetherington who played Nellie Forbush, Will Branner who played Lt. Joseph Cable, and Brian Michael Hoffman who played Luther Billis.
Wetherington, who has several off-Broadway credits, sang with a clear and fragile voice – a perfect match for her innocent role as Nellie Forbush. She revealed a three-dimensional aspect to her character as she realized she took the love she had for granted and begins weeping for Emile. The only critique one could give is her fading Midwestern accent, that came in and out as she spoke.
Branner’s role as Lt. Joseph Cable seemed to place emotion at the forefront of his character, especially when he shared a touching moment under the stars with Liat. His voice even garnered the same emotion as he sang, creating an alternate reality for the audience.
Hoffman performed the comic relief role of Luther Billis, capturing the audience with his blunt humor and dramatic stage presence.
“I think a great American play reveals so much about the time in which it was written, but it must also reveal something about who we are today,” Lane wrote in the musical’s playbill.
Learned hatred for people from different backgrounds is embedded in “South Pacific,” creating issues for the main protagonists. However, though it questions prejudice, it also seems to reiterate stereotypes for Asians, by making light of people who are not fluent in English and by placing whiteness on a pedestal. This is visible by the way the Marine’s poke fun at Bloody Mary while she is selling handmade products to them, and the way Bloody Mary insists Liat marry a rich white man.
Though these are critiques of the musical itself, I think it makes an audience member question its seemingly outdated overgeneralizations of ethnicity.
The plot is slightly contradictory by nature. While tackling themes of ethnic prejudice, the musical also bathes in hypermasculinity and sexism.
As expected with a musical written in the ‘40s, women are viewed as men’s play-things; however, what is most unexpected is the openly sexual remarks. The song “There is Nothing Like a Dame” features the men’s desire to be with a woman. During the song, one man describes the shape of a woman with their hands, while another mimics a sexual position. Then, Billis plays a woman with a grass-skirt and coconut bra during a performance for a Thanksgiving Follies concert, which is a classic man-plays-woman trope.
“It is a war play, a love story and a revolutionary masterpiece that could only have been created in the U.S. at the particular time in which it arrived,” Lane wrote in the musical’s playbill. “But it has proven to have life long after 1949 and to speak to audiences around the world.”
The entanglement of these issues makes “South Pacific” a musical one continues to think about after it has finished, and this production highlights these questionable themes professionally.
“Excellent play, [the cast] did a great job,” Lawrence McSwain, an audience member said while suggesting the musical was performed differently, but conveys the original book very well.
This gripping performance with stunning singing, light dancing and emotional acting will continue to make audience members question its relevance long after the cast bows. With the 2017-2018 Triad Stage season just beginning, there are more opportunities to see “South Pacific” and other great productions in the following months.