by Kevin Shaw
In 1975, at the age of nine, I was so desperate to be an actor that I dyed my hair jet black, wore a sarong and rubbed dark brown makeup all over my face, torso, arms and legs. I thought nothing of it simply for the honor of playing Jerome (the Polynesian son to Emile de Becque) in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at the Jewish Community Center in Birmingham, AL. Being so young, I could hardly grasp any of the story’s heavy duty topics such as racism and love. All I knew was that I was getting to sing songs, people were clapping for me at the end of the show and I was able to see topless women backstage making fast costume changes. What an education!
In 1985, I had grown up and was excited to play one of the sailors in a summer stock production of the show that actually starred Giorgio Tozzi as Emile de Becque (Tozzi was the singing voice in the 1958 Joshua Logan movie starring Rossana Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor). There were many times I wanted to ask Tozzi how it felt to be the voice of the movie, but not chosen to actually be seen. I never asked because he seemed to be taking such pride in allowing audiences to finally see his face now. I didn’t want to bring up a potentially “sore” subject, but it was clear to me that he had a face better suited for the radio.
Three years later, I booked my first show after moving to Los Angeles by playing a sailor once again in a version which earned me my Equity card. This production of South Pacific taught me a lot about professional theatre. The most important thing it taught me after performing the same part 8 times a week for several months was that I never again wanted to be in a show that required me to perform the same part 8 times a week for several months. I had sacrificed a lot to get to this point in my career and could the “pinnacle” really be staring at a painted mountain while hearing Bloody Mary sing about that damn Bali Ha’I night after night? Trust me—it got old REALLY fast! So old, that I have stayed away from any mention of the show or music for almost 30 years. That is, until I attended the opening of South Pacific at Theatre Memphis (running now through June 25th) this past weekend.
Amazingly, Theatre Memphis has never produced the classic Pulitzer Prize, Tony winning musical in its almost 100 year history. It’s a show tailor made for community theatres with its large ensemble of men, women and even some children. One would be hard-pressed to meet someone over the age of 30 who is not familiar with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most recognizable songs (“I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame” and “Some Enchanted Evening). What might not be as memorable to most people is that it was considered quite controversial when it came out in 1949 with a plot involving race and the taboos of falling in love with someone of a different skin color. From a “2017 perspective,” one might ask, does the young lead nurse (Nellie Forbush played by Amy P. Nabors) HAVE to be from Little Rock AND racist? Stereotypes are stereotypes because they’re mostly true and there’s not a ice cube’s chance in hell that a woman from Arkansas in the mid 1940’s is going to be okay with her boyfriend having slept and fathered children with a woman (Polynesian) from a different race. If that’s not cringeworthy enough for young audiences in 2017 to wrap their heads around, the authors decided to allow Nellie to be able to look past Emile’s admission that he actually killed a man in his previous life. Murdering a man = acceptable. Having been in love with a non-white woman = unacceptable! Such a storyline in 1949 (mixed with great songs) must have been comparable to a musical today being about a cisgender woman falling in love with a transgender man—scandalous!
Bloody Mary: Noby Edwards portrays the island icon known as Bloody Mary and is surrounded by World War II sailors in the Theatre Memphis production of South Pacific, June 2 – 25, 2017, on the Lohrey Stage.
Fleshman and Nabors: Kent Fleshman and Amy P. Nabors lead the cast as Emile de Becque and Nellie Forbush in the Theatre Memphis production of South Pacific, June 2 – 25, 2017, on the Lohrey Stage.
South Pacific’s plot may feel extremely unflappable to most (and unfortunately still flappable to some) in 2017, so the focus of current incarnations should be on innovation in presentation or a pristine execution of song and dance. An “average” production of a 1949 show isn’t likely to win over the hearts and minds of a 2017 generation. Leads Kent Fleshman (de Becque) and Amy P. Nabors (Forbush) are perfectly cast to fulfill the “pristine execution” category. Fleshman’s booming and gorgeous singing voice is a reminder of how beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs can be. He perfectly nails the French accent (which is harder than it may sound) and his sophistication and elegance are a perfect contrast to Nabor’s unrefined and plucky demeanor. Similarly to her knockout performance a few years back as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde at Playhouse on the Square, Nabors throws herself 100% into the role of the cockeyed optimist with a stellar singing voice. Due to a lack of water and sudsy soap though, her signature song (“I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair) was a bit lacking.
So, while Fleshman and Nabors opened the show with an impressive potential for an exciting night at the theatre, all else that followed was severely lacking in the “innovation” category. Director Jordan Nichols has proven himself to be the best director currently working in Memphis with such impressive hits as Miss Saigon and Memphis, but there is concern that he has become such a prolific and highly sought after director, that his creative juices might be drying up a bit. Let me be clear–the staging, choreography and the rest of the cast were good, but not great. And with Nichols, the expectation has reached the level of great. Noby Edwards’ Bloody Mary plodded around the stage while singing rather than demanding focus with her voice and intensity. Her angry rendition of “Happy Talk” defied logic. Oliver Pierce as Luther Billis somehow missed every beat of humor at his disposal. With heavy topics such as war, death, racism and tortured romance, this Billis provided absolutely zero comic relief (“Get the picture?”). Bradley Karel’s Lt. Joseph Cable has a nice singing voice, impressive physique and almost elevated himself to Fleshman and Nabors’ level…almost. The choreography fell into the “stock community theatre” category and the orchestra didn’t come close to the beauty and elegance provided by TM’s Beauty and the Beast orchestra a few months back.
If you’re looking for a stroll down memory lane, you’ll have a nice night at the theatre listening to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beautiful songs. The overall production will be quite reminiscent of a production you might see in 1949. If you’re younger and not familiar with the show/score, you’re liable to leave only remembering Cable’s shirtless torso.