'South Pacific' opening in Los Angeles

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Peter Coombs/Center Theatre Group

Cast of the national tour of the Lincoln Center production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "South Pacific."

When “South Pacific” first opened on Broadway more than 60 years ago, it commented candidly on racial prejudice. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year.

The show was revived on Broadway two years ago. Now it’s on a national tour, opening this week in Los Angeles.

Baritone Rod Gilfry told KPCC's Steve Julian that the show’s racial commentary surprised him. Gilfry plays Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner on a South Pacific island.

"The race element is really very pointed and I didn’t expect it to be as important as it is," said Gilfry. "Nobody thinks about South Pacific as being a show about race."

But race becomes the wedge that separates de Becque and Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, portrayed by Carmen Cusack. While race is a key issue, so is war.

"First week of rehearsals all the leads and principals sat at a table and hashed out the history of war and what it means today and then," said Cusack. "Still the same can of worms."

That meeting was called by director Bartlett Sher, who also directed the 2008 Broadway production that swept the Tony awards. Cusack says, once you get past songs like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “Cockeyed Optimist” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” you find a story steeped in issues that are just as relevant today as they were during the 1940s.

"We deal with the racial issues and we deal in war in a more realistic way. It’s not all fun and games, a sweet little story with people hamming it up with cute little songs. The songs play a part in this show but in a more ‘real’ way if that makes sense."

Gilfry’s best known as an opera singer, Cusack as an actress from Texas who spent much of the past 20 years in London. Both remember a show their touring company performed in New York.

"When we were in Schenectady, there was a congressman," said Gilfry. "Do you remember his first name?"

"Paul," said Cusack, "We were on a first name basis because he came into my dressing room in floods of tears saying that everyone in Washington needs to see this show because he’d just come from a Tea Party [event] and the hatred was so thick and horrible and he was so upset by it. He came to see our show and said he had no idea this is so poignant right now. 'I insist everyone in Washington come and see it.' So, anyway..."

"It was right when the health care thing was on Capitol Hill," said Gilfry, "and there was so much anger about it and racial epithets and the N word was being shouted at African-American congressmen. I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that was still happening in this day and age and it’s just evidence that we really have a long way to go, and a piece like this is really relevant."

South Pacific is based on a 1948 short story collection by James Michener – “Tales of the South Pacific.” Richard Rogers wrote the music; Oscar Hammerstein, the lyrics. The original orchestrations have been restored. And racially-themed dialogue that was cut before the original production opened on Broadway, is back in. The show continues through July 17 at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.

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