Rodgers and Hammerstein had huge hits with their first two collaborations, Oklahoma and Carousel, but their third, Allegro, flopped. So in staging their fourth, South Pacific, they hedged their bets in a number of ways, including using for the first time an established star, famed Metropolitan Opera bass Ezio Pinza, from outside the community of Broadway actors. Dexter’s Encore Theatre has similarly turned to the operatic stage in casting the lead for its current production of South Pacific. Stephen West, U-M voice department chair, has also sung at the Met, as well as at many other prominent opera houses throughout the U.S. and Europe. He’s also a highly talented and versatile actor. His Emile is by turns Old World elegant and convincingly righteous in rejecting a request from the U.S. military. “I know what you’re against, but what are you for?” His remarkably resonant bass-baritone voice effortlessly fills the Encore, whether he is singing a gorgeous tender pianissimo or roaring a triple fortissimo you can feel as well as hear.
Mary Martin, who starred opposite Pinza in the original South Pacific, was initially hesitant to accept the role, fearing that, in those pre-amplification days, she’d be overshadowed by Pinza’s powerful voice. Which is why Rodgers wrote almost no duets for them. At the Encore, Marlene Inman’s lovely soprano comfortably holds her own next to West’s booming bass. Inman was Golde to West’s Tevye in Encore’s Fiddler on the Roof three years ago, and the chemistry between them, then and now, lights up the stage better than a bank of Fresnel spotlights. There are many other shining lights in this production. In particular, Matthew Brennan’s every move completely embodies the impetuous, opportunistic Billis.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first three musicals were all set in the U.S., and all opened during or immediately after WWII. Produced in 1949, South Pacific takes place during the war, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, like other Americans, were coming to grips with that conflict and with the country’s changing role in the world. They were also recognizing changes on the home front. America was beginning to face racism more openly, and South Pacific‘s characters are forced to confront that evil, even on their idyllic island halfway around the world.
The opening words in South Pacific are French, “Dites-moi pourquoi, Tell me why,” an innocent love song sung by two children. The lyrics take on a darker meaning later, especially when Sebastian Gerstner, as Cable, furiously sings “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” one of the most powerful statements against racism, and for that matter any form of intolerance, ever written for the stage.
Some aspects of South Pacific have not aged well; for example, the instant romance between Cable, the American soldier, and the native girl, Liat–who gets not a single word of dialogue–feels steeped in the period’s stereotypes of white men and native women. But Rodgers’ music and Hammerstein’s lyrics are ageless, and their courage in choosing to confront racism nearly seventy years ago is to be forever admired. The Encore’s production, which runs through July 3, does the musical proud and delivers way more than just some enchanted evenings.