'South Pacific' themes still timely

Sunday, April 14, 2002

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "South Pacific" stands as upright today as when it walked onto a Broadway stage a half-century ago, according to Kansas University theater professor John Staniunas.

Not only has the musical remained one of the most popular shows, but it tackles issues that are still relevant � particularly after Sept. 11 � and presents them in a way that does not gloss over the hard facts.


Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Cast members for "South Pacific" are, from left, Justin Petersen (Emile de Becque), Kelly Mengelkoch (Nellie Forbush), Narito Mendez (Jerome de Becque) and Mica Mendez (Ngana de Becque).

"There are two thematic threads we considered in designing the show and making decisions about the characters," said Staniunas, who is directing University Theatre's upcoming production of "South Pacific."

"The first is the sense of occupation by big countries. Where do we really belong? � The second is that Americans learn more about themselves when they are not in America. We learn more about our background, what is and should be important to us. We see America in terms of a world view rather than it just being home."

With music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the musical is set on a South Seas island that has been turned into a U.S. naval base during World War II. The story revolves around the wartime romance between Nellie Forbush, a young Navy nurse from Arkansas, and Emile de Becque, a middle-aged French planter who has been an exile on the island for years. Nellie is heartbroken when she learns de Becque once had a Polynesian wife.

A secondary story is about a young Marine who has fallen for a Tokinese girl and is torn between his love and his learned prejudice.

Staniunas said Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote "South Pacific" in 1949 after World War II; the tale reflects who Americans found themselves to be during the war. It was adapted from James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Tales of the South Pacific."

"In going across the seas, Americans discovered a lot about what it means to be an American and a lot about our own racial prejudice at home," he said. "Americans were facing serious issues and themes so Rodgers and Hammerstein created a musical answer to these issues."

The musical also is grounded in the prejudice its creators encountered.

"In spite of their success, the authors had experienced problems with anti-Semitism. They disguised their feelings in 'South Pacific.' But looking at prejudice had never been on-stage before � especially not in musical theater."

The musical, which has a cast of 34 and a 32-piece orchestra, features several songs now considered Broadway classics: "Bali Hai," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bloody Mary" and "There Is Nothing Like a Dame."

The costumes, designed by Aaron Dyszelski, feature period clothing from the 1940s, including bathing suits. For the show-within-a-show, called the "Thanksgiving Follies," the costumes were constructed from objects the characters may have found on the island, tin cans, comic books and exotic flowers.

The scenic design by Brian Clinnin revolves around painted fabric backdrops that are based on the wood carvings in Michener's novel; Varga girl pinups that appeared in Esquire magazine during World War II; and paintings of exotic locales that have been digitized and will be projected on-stage.