By Jenny Neyman
Don’t let the group dances, tropical lighting, guy in a coconut bra, proclivity toward love at first sight and orchestral emphasis of emotional responses fool you. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” is a musical, all right — with all the fun, fantasy, grandeur and exuberant entertainment the theatrical style entails.
But it’s also not so far from real life.
“I like it because it’s so human. There’s gray, there’s no black and white, and that’s kind of the beauty of the show — it’s so relatable in that sense,” said Spencer McAuliffe, who plays Émile de Becque.
The show is set in a Naval base on an unnamed island in the South Pacific during World War II, long ago and far away from Kenai. But not so far. Kenai Performers is staging the musical — one of the most highly awarded Broadway hits, with 10 Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize for drama when it premiered in 1949, a hit 1958 film and another seven Tonys for the 2008 Broadway revival — this week and next at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School. And they are finding it as relevent as it is engaging.
The appeal of the music, first of all, cannot be denied.
“The music has so much power and depth, it just sings itself, really. It tells its story very clearly and concisely. It’s one of the best musicals of all time, in my opinion, with some of the greatest musical theater numbers. It’s so much fun to sing — it’s got so much emotion and evocative tendencies built into it,” McAuliffe said.
“Some Enchanted Evening,” “There’s Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy” — even if the song titles aren’t immediately recognizable, chances are the songs are.
“It’s probably the most famous of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals. People know the music, whether they know it or not,” said director and choreographer Terri Zopf-Schoessler. “And I have the most amazing cast. I have incredible voices. This is the first time in a long time there are more men in this cast than women, which is a rarity. It’s a very small cast, relatively speaking, and everybody is critical to it. Nobody had a bench this deep in theater.”
Even more impressive than the music is what happens between the songs. In some musicals, the dialogue and plot are mere vehicles to get from one song-and-dance number to the next. But “South Pacific” has far more depth than the shallow sands of the tropics might suggest.
There’s comedy, to be sure, from goof-off sailors led by the entrepreneurial Luther Billis (played by Bill Mabrey), whose heart is just
slightly bigger than his aspirations to stuff his wallet. And there are flirty nurses as happy to gossip about developing loves as they are to fall themselves. Both are played against the strict — but not without their quirks — military commanders of the island, led by Commander Brackett (played by Robert Peterson). But there are equal parts of substance to the silliness.
“It’s one of the rare musicals where there’s actually a story line, and it ranges from absolute absurd comedy to very serious topics,” Zopf-Schoessler said. The script is based on a book of short stories by James A. Michener, who also wrote the novel “Alaska.” “It’s based off of real people. Rodgers and Hammerstein used (Michener’s book) as a jumping-off point for the story.”
This creates characters, not caricatures, as often are found in musicals. Case in point, there is no “bad guy,” nor “good guy.” The most unlikable characters still have hearts, and the supposed hero and heroine struggle with their own foibles.
Lt. Joe Cable, played by Justin Ruffridge, is perhaps the closest role to an antagonist, but it’s his own demons by which he is antagonized. He comes to the island to complete a dangerous mission. He remains committed to his duty but wavers in the ways of his heart when he meets a native girl, Liat, played by Hannah Warren. Though he loves her, he struggles with the idea of marrying a woman not of his race.
“There are some things that I do that would be questionable today, but in the end I sacrifice,” Ruffridge said. Cable is a complex character, but Ruffridge has gotten comfortable playing him. “The show of confidence outwardly, but inside you’re not really sure who you are. Certain things happen that change your mind about things that you believe pretty strongly, and you find out that you were wrong.”
McAuliffe has found his character similarly human, with strengths and weaknesses. Émile de Becque is a middle-age expatriate French plantation owner, exiled from his home country by his troubled past. At the same time, his heart is as open as a teenager when he meets the young Navy nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush, played by Karin Caldwell.
“It’s a stretch for me because I’m a couple of decades away from that character,” said McAuliffe, who, at 24, is young for the role, but at 6-foot-4 with a deep vocal range, can pull off the part. “At the same time there are a lot of elements of Émile that are very young. He’s a young soul in that respect. He struggles just like any other man with the same shortcomings. He’s a very believable character, so it’s not very difficult to get into the mindset.”
Nurse Nellie Forbush, as blond, beautiful and dreamworthy as a sunny South Pacific beach, struggles, too, with an uglier side of herself. She can’t deny that she loves Émile, but tries to when she realizes he has had children with a native woman.
“I get it. I get what Nellie’s going through,” Caldwell said.
She grew up as a missionary kid in Mexico in a time and culture where cross-cultural relationships were frowned upon. “In Mexico, you better not look around. I remember feeling that way,” she said.
As difficult and taboo a topic as racism can be, theater presents an ideal venue to explore it, since it’s so far removed from the come-one, come-all nature of how community productions work.
“It’s a great, great group to start with,” Caldwell said of the Kenai Performers. “They don’t bite. They’re so encouraging. It’s been so much fun. It’s a great way to involve yourself in the community if you aren’t already involved. And there’s something for everyone — props, costumes, you don’t have to have a set skill, you just have to be a warm body and a warm heart and show up.”
Caldwell got involved through her stepkids, who have been participating in Kenai Performers youth programs since they were little, and have been involved in the organization’s winter musicals since 2002. Participation is a many-month commitment, and Caldwell agreed to her kids’ request to audition a few years ago so she could spend more time with them. She’s helped with costumes, been a “silent, miming mermaid,” as she calls it, in “Peter Pan” two years ago, and this year — much to her surprise — was cast in the lead as Nellie.
“I’m overwhelmed, at times I’m terrified, and I’m excited, but I don’t want to let anyone down — that’s my biggest fear. But it’s been fun. The kids run lines with me and we sing in the house. It’s been a big undertaking but it’s been fun. I’m terrified but I’m having a ball. I can’t wait for the lights to go up and just do it,” she said.
Caldwell acted in junior high, high school and college, but not much since. But her music background has been far more consistent.
“I’ve sung since I was little little. I’m a preacher’s, missionary kid, so I was kind of born on the piano bench,” she said. “My mom teases that we were born singing four-part harmony — it’s a requirement of our bloodline. Our father would take us aside and teach us four-part harmony when we were little.”
Her parents were Mennonite Brotherhood and met while on a mission, not unlike the way Nellie and Émile met, so the role has special relevance for Caldwell. Others in the cast and crew find connection to the military aspects of the show, having been through the service, themselves. Peterson, for instance, wears as his costume the uniform he wore in the service.
“There’s just connections everywhere,” Zopf-Schoessler said.
For Ruffridge, participating in community theater connects him to the community.
“The best part is meeting people that you would never meet any other way,” he said. “You get to meet people and build some good friendships and get to know a lot about people that you otherwise would never get to see,” he said.
He’s been in “Oliver” and “Grease,” took a few years off and felt the need to get involved again this year.
“It’s wintertime. I can’t handle winter. I’ve got to find something to do,” he said. “And I love to sing. Singing was probably the big thing that brought me to musicals.”
Well, that and a challenge.
“It was more of a dare the first time. Someone said, ‘You should do something like that.’ And I said, ‘Maybe I will.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, right,’” Ruffridge said.
McAuliffe has been hooked since he was a kid, participating in “Fiddler on the Roof” when he was 13, then going off to college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks after graduating from Cook Inlet Academy in 2007, to study vocal performance.
“I got the bug from ‘Fiddler’ and couldn’t stop. It’s one of those experiences you really can’t equate to anything else. It’s such a great experience and so much fun. I really enjoy the rehearsing side of it and putting all that time in and developing the character and getting to really believe it yourself, and tell that same story. That’s what’s really enjoyable to me, and then the performance side of it is an expression of letting people in on all the fun you’re having,” he said.
“This is the best show I’ve been part of, that’s for sure,” Ruffridge said.
The fun for audiences begins opening night, at 7 p.m. Friday. Subsequent shows are at 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, and next week at 7 p.m. March 1 and 2 and 3 p.m. March 3. Tickets are available at River City Books in Soldotna and Curtain Call Consignment in Kenai, online at http://www.kenaiperformers.com and at the door. Kenai Performers is also posting trivia questions on its Facebook page to give away tickets to the show.
The cast and crew have been working on the show since auditions in October and are excited to welcome visitors to the tropical world they’ve created.
“I feel more relaxed in this show in terms of being prepared, I feel really comfortable with where we’re at as a group. It’s fun to be at that point where it’s just putting the icing on that cake, rather than rushing to make sure everything’s in place,” McAuliffe said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
“This is the best show I’ve been part of, that’s for sure,” Ruffridge said.