October 1, 2008
Downey’s ‘South Pacific’ is Not All Enchanted Evenings
By Al Rudis
It's hotter than Hades. The enemy is savage and is willing to commit suicide to kill you. You are in a totally different culture from back home. But despite all the weirdness, you are always aware of why you're there: to fight for your country.
The year could be 2008, or it could be 1943.
"The difference, of course, is then it was conscription, and this time, it's volunteer," said Marsha Moode, director of "South Pacific," which previews Thursday and opens Friday at the Downey Civic Theater.
"The play is incredibly relevant today," Moode says of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical being presented by the Downey Civic Light Opera.
Although it's loaded with comedy, romance and songs that have become pop classics, "South Pacific" is also a military drama.
"What's admirable about a military frame of mind is very admirable in this play," Moode said in a phone interview last week, "a sense of duty, a sense of mission, a sense of wanting to be part of a great effort for the country.
"If you went to military headquarters in Baghdad, you'd see the same kind of guys. They've got their shirts buttoned, they've got their orders, they're doing their duty and they're very disciplined. And that's what the military scenes are about in this play, and there are quite a few of them in the second act, four or five scenes back to back, and no songs, no dances. Just interviewing people, phone calls, cables, looking at maps, that kind of thing."
The soldiers in South Pacific aren't involved in combat for most of the play. They're part of the support team.
"It's like being in Hawaii on vacation while on the other islands, people are shooting and dying," Moode said. "Like Iraq, it's hot to carry around military equipment, and it's a different kind of warfare. Some of the fiercest fighting took place in the South Pacific, and by the end of the war, there were suicide missions. And there was a time when it looked like the war in the South Pacific was going to be lost. There was terrible brutal fighting and lots of death, terrible deaths that took place there. So there are points of comparison."
"South Pacific" opened on Broadway in 1949, and as relevant as the military part of it is today, another theme seems almost quaint: interracial love.
"With the candidacy of Barack Obama, 60 years later, it's a different age for tolerance and intolerance," Moode said, pointing to one of the love affairs in the show, between Lt. Joseph Cable and his girlfriend, Liat.
"He can't quite come to grips with being in love with a Polynesian woman," said Moode. "He's thinking about his life afterwards, and he can't face it. He's grown up in Philadelphia, and it's just not a part of his life. That's how much the world has changed in 60 years. So the situation is quaint in a way, but it also shows us how far we've come and evolved as a society," she said.
"There's also a moral point to the affair, because Cable works his way through it for himself, and he realizes his foolishness," she said. "He even says, 'My God, everything I want in the world is here, and after the war, I'm coming back here.' So he's worked it out in his own mind and heart."
Prejudice also figures in the romance between the two lead characters, Nellie Forbush, played by Carolanne Marano, and Emile de Becque, played by Greg North. Both are Equity actors, as is Bill Lewis, who plays Capt. George Brackett.
"Emile had been married to a Polynesian woman, and at first, she's put off by it," said Moode of the Forbush character. "She comes to grips with it and loves his children and him, and they're going to have a life together. So it's demonstrated that people can work through their intolerant spirit to become tolerant."
Moode directs 35 actors in this production, as large a cast as that in the current Broadway revival.
"I like big casts because, as I always say to the actors, if I wanted to see two people talking together, I'd turn on my TV. I think you go to the theater to see a line of dancing girls, a lot of soldiers and a lot of wives and children. That's the advantage over the tube, where you can see only one or two at a time.
The Downey version of "South Pacific" is shorter than the Broadway version, even though it has the same script and one additional song. It's because of the Downey Civic Theater.
Moode has been with the Downey Civic Light Opera for 21 years, and since 2000, she has been the executive producer, putting on 28 shows in the theater, 18 of which she directed. It was when she was staging another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "The King and I," that she first took advantage of the building's architecture.
"There's a 50-foot proscenium arch stage," she said, "and then immediately left and right, at an angle, there are two side stages that have their own separate red curtains that come down.
"In musicals, there are a lot of what we call crossover scenes, where people just walk across the stage and they play some music, and they're changing the set behind the curtain. Or they play some music in the dark, and all of a sudden someone rolls out an office or a room or something.
"We are able to do all these old-time musicals in a slightly different way," she said. "We can finish a scene and go immediately into the next one on a side stage. And while we're on the side stage, we can do whatever we need to do on the main stage, and then we can go out with the side stage and up with the main stage."
In "South Pacific," a side stage is used for many of the military office scenes. And Moode is excited about something she created for one of the small stages. One of the scenes important to the plot is fairly static, and for 60 years, it has been played a certain way, even in the current Broadway production. But by using her theater, she has turned it into an action scene that puts the audience in the middle of a military mission.
"It makes it, I think, more vivid," Moode said.
Al Rudis (562) 499-1255; [email protected] PACIFIC
What: Downey Civic Light Opera production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical classic.
When: Previews at 8 p.m. Thursday. Continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 19.
Where: Downey Civic Theater, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd.
Tickets: $25 for the preview; regular performances are $30-$35; $15 for children 12 and under; $25 for students with ID; $25 senior rush tickets available 15 minutes before the show only.
Information: (562) 923-1714.
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