There has never been a more perfect pairing of glorious songs and meaningful messages in one musical than the double whammy delivered by South Pacific.
Now on display at the Porthouse Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls, this Rogers and Hammerstein classic has all the songs you’ve grown to love for more than 60 years: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Cockeyed Optimist,” Bali Ha’i,” and tons more.
But at the core of this tune-fest is a strong stance against racial prejudice that must have been shocking when the show opened on Broadway in 1949. With two plotlines involving entrenched racism and miscegenation, it’s not a subject that can easily be avoided by any audience member.
And when the show first toured Atlanta in 1953, this iconic work, with book help by Joshua Logan, was denounced in the Georgia statehouse. One representative stated, “ Intermarriage produces half-breeds…in the South we have pure blood lines and we intend to keep it that way.”
Even now, with just such a “half-breed” serving as President of the United States, such attitudes still abound. And that’s why South Pacific should always be seen by new audiences, again and again.
Happily, this Porthouse production does the rich material justice, for the most part. Under the direction of American musical guru Terri Kent with choreography by MaryAnn Black and music direction by Jonathan Swoboda, this version has a splendid blend of fine voices along with romance, slapstick, and the aforementioned cultural relevance.
The central love-struck roles of Emile de Becque and Nellie Forbush are handled with style and elegance by Greg Violand and Kayce Cummings. The ultra-suave Violand spins a lush tropical spell with his voice, turning “Some Enchanted Evening” into a song you wish would go on forever.
And Cummings plays the “hick from the sticks” with a refreshing dose of honesty and feistiness. Her renditions of “Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” are light and delightful. But when it comes time to show her bigoted Little Rock roots, after she learns Emile’s kids are the result of intermarriage, you feel the grind of inbred racism.
This is also brought home in the song “You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” sung by Lt. Joseph Cable, who is wrestling with his own demons after he falls for the Tonkinese lovely Liat (an angel-faced Kaishawn Thomas). As Cable, Jake Wood sings well and delivers the message of that instructive tune, crooning that you have to be carefully taught “Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate.”
However, Wood struggles to establish a love bond with Liat, woodenly embracing the young girl and never quite allowing the audience to share his in both his passion and torment.
No such problems afflict Colleen Longshaw, who spits fire as Bloody Mary, mother of Liat and inveterate hustler. Longshaw generates laughs with her in-your-face attitude, and she delivers the goods in her songs “Bali Ha’I” and “Happy Talk.”
Most of the chuckles, however, are triggered by Tim Welsh, whose Luther Billis is a sailor in the weasely tradition of Phil Silvers as the similarly-named Sgt. Bilko. Selling grass skirts and seasick remedies, Welsh’s Billis is a loose (and, okay, flabby) cannonball that never misses its mark. His drag belly dance during “Honey Bun” is a jiggly hoot and a half.
Supported by fine and precise work by the ensemble in dance numbers, particularly in “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” this South Pacific is a trip to a little bit of paradise.
Through June 29 at Porthouse Theatre, on the Blossom Music Center campus, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884