Weary muscles and joints today, but worth it for my soothed soul. Last night, I had the privilege to attend the Lincoln Center’s Broadway revival of South Pacific on stage. And not just any stage – my own stage, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, in the heart of the theater where I work.
I cannot rave enough about South Pacific. This production is glorious – world-class singing talent, a large orchestra with rich depths to its sound, and beautifully crafted set design. My friend Laura, who plans to go back to school in theater stage management and design, will swoon when she sees these sets. The World War II aircraft buff in me was impressed by the realism of the Navy fighter on stage. The use of light and matte painting on the backdrops were so evocative, at times I forgot it wasn’t a real sunset over the sparkling seas and that the sailors weren’t really prancing through sand. The set design was just as much of a star as the acting talent.
And what talent! I’m not typically enamoured with the traditional musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but the vocal talent of Jason Howard in the role of Emile was earth-shattering, in a way I am completely unused to in humble Appleton, Wisconsin. I had to keep pinching myself as if to physically jolt myself into the realization I hadn’t suddenly been transported to Europe’s opera houses. (Although, according to the program notes, he has performed in opera houses across Europe, including Wagner’s ”Ring Cycle” in Strasbourg.)
The storyline has also aged surprisingly well, relatable to these times with an African-American president and growing anti-Muslim fervor, a political theater rife with disrespect and an absence of nuanced, reasoned conversation on both sides of the red and blue aisle. It is especially relevant with today’s undercurrent of racist nativism that chills this historian trained in 1930s American and European history to the core. While not an overtly political production, the exploration of prejudice in South Pacific and how it can seep treacherously into the emotions, opinions and actions of even the most open-minded individuals, who would see themselves as unprejudiced, is thought-provoking. And poignantly timed. Especially as I overhear respected friends voice startlingly bigoted opinions bathed in ignorance and fear. A student of Depression-era history, I know this stems from great uncertainty, as most periods of nativism and growing visible intolerance often do in our society. To have at such a time a beautiful, soulful revival of South Pacific seems somehow more than coincidence. A relevant story, wrapped up in soul-inspiring music and a remarkable visual feast.
In my feverish longing for travel that challenges me to open up and expose myself to learning about other people and cultures, I often forget that soul-enriching cultural experiences are right in my backyard. Last night was solid proof of that. So even though I had been at work since 8:30 am that morning, somehow I didn’t mind when I stepped out of the doors of the theater at 10:30pm. It was as if I had journeyed in my seat back into the 1940s in the Pacific for three whole hours - “Some Enchanted Evening”, indeed!