Regional Theatre of the Palouse Director John Rich puts “South Pacific,” opening tonight at the RTOP Theatre in Pullman, squarely in the must-see category.
The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, based on the 1946 book “Tales of the South Pacific” by James Michener, has a message that made it controversial when it debuted and as relevant as ever today, Rich said.
“I think it’s one of the golden age musicals that really needs to be seen,” he said. “ ‘South Pacific’ was the ‘Hamilton’ of its day.”
The script tackled the issue of racism at a time — it premiered on Broadway in 1949 — when the topic wasn’t widely discussed. The song “You've Got to Be Carefully Taught,” about how hating people of other races is something children learn from their elders, and a romantic relationship between the characters of a white U.S. Marine lieutenant and a Tonkinese woman, sparked criticism when the show went on tour.
Lawmakers in Georgia spoke out after seeing it in the 1950s, saying a song justifying marriage between races was offensive, according to a story from NPR’s The Race Card Project series.
Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II incorporated serious themes in musicals throughout their careers.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein did it in a beautiful and lovely way,” Rich said. “Even ‘The Sound of Music’ has the theme of World War II and the Nazis and Hitler coming in. Under all the beautiful music and the happy family moments and so forth, there’s the underlying theme of evil coming in.”
That specter of danger is real in “South Pacific,” set in 1943, during World War II.
“My family actually came from the Orient. My family had to escape the Philippines. My grandfather was on the last ship out of Manila harbor before the Japanese invaded,” Rich said. “So the story is very close to home.”
This production of the show is the first on the Palouse in recent memory, Rich said. In fact, he could find no record of it being performed here since at least the 1960s.
“I think it’s a forgotten work,” he said.
Bringing it to the stage in 2023 meant rethinking some moments in the play, including the depiction of the Tonkinese woman Bloody Mary.
“Bloody Mary is not going to be this stereotype (of a) character,” Rich said.
The actor playing her, Washington State University vocal graduate Chloe Fieber, is from Hawaii and has informed the character in important ways, he said.
“She’s very knowledgeable cultural-wise,” Rich said. “I think she’s bringing more of a realism instead of a stereotype, as far as how that role has always been done.”
Even with the evolution in sensibilities since the show premiered, he said, it was so well written there was no need for radical changes.
“We’re not omitting anything from the Rodgers and Hammerstein script,” Rich said. “We’re reinterpreting it.”
In keeping with the Regional Theatre of the Palouse’s philosophy of blending local and national talent, the cast includes actors from the Palouse and beyond, including Spokane, Cheney and the west side of Washington.
“I have a really enthusiastic, high-energy cast that I’m working with, so it’s fun,” Rich said. “We’re having a fun time.”
Amy McNelly, who portrays Ensign Nellie Forbush, is one of many local performers in the show. Misha Myznikov, who plays Forbush’s love interest, the Frenchman Emile de Becque, is an opera singer who performs frequently in Seattle.
“Again, a delightful experience working with him,” Rich said. “And he’s played the role before.”
In a time when politics feels particularly polarized and picking up the newspaper in the morning means reading about issues like books being banned, a show like “South Pacific” can remind people what’s at stake, Rich said.
“I think it’s very important for people not to forget,” he said. “As artists, we have to tell the truth.”
“South Pacific,” he said, is a show that does that particularly well.
“One of our performers just performed under the grandson of Oscar Hammerstein and was telling him he was coming out to do the show,” Rich said. “And he said it was one of the best-written shows that his grandfather did.”
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IF YOU GO
What: “South Pacific”
When: 7:30 p.m. April 13-15 and 19-22; 1:30 p.m. April 15-16 and 22-23.
Where: RTOP Theatre, 122 N. Grand Ave., Pullman.
Tickets: $28 at rtoptheatre.org.
Of note: Opening night was sold out as of press time. Those interested in seeing the show are encouraged to purchase tickets as soon as possible.