Since debuting on Broadway in 1949, “South Pacific” has become one of those productions that have stood the test and travails of time, ever-cogent and germane to today’s themes regarding acceptance and love. Its origins are second to none, too, as it is based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Tales of the South Pacific” (comprised of 19 separate stories), with music and lyrics by the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the book by the latter and Joshua Logan. As a winner of an astounding ten Tony Awards, the musical primarily addresses interracial harmony and romance on two South Pacific islands smack-dab during one of the most tumultuous epochs in history: World War II.
The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment have successfully teamed up again to produce a compelling show that can be seen through May 13th. It not only pays homage to one of the most historical works in the realm of musical theatre – with standards galore – but stands on its own accord with engrossingly credible performances by 24 cast members, superb direction by Glenn Casale, moving musical direction by Brent Crayon, and evocative choreography by Peggy Hickey. Furthermore, assisted by the very authentic military costumes by Mary Folino, the realistic hair/wig/makeup design by EB Bohks, and the adventuresome lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg, Robert Kovach’s scenic design is bolstered by a fantastic scope that is breathtaking with its palm trees, foliage, and flowers, including a makeshift shower and an operational military car onstage.
The ambiance is starkly vivid, and Casale’s directorial style is paced so well that the production’s two hours and forty-five minutes (including intermission) breeze right on by. A predominant factor is the strength of the cast members, each of whom is readily capable and demonstrates a commitment and aptitude for the material. At the forefront is the male lead, John Cudia, who, having established an impressive reputation for himself on Broadway as the Phantom and Jean Valjean, shines in spades as the moral and mysterious French expatriate planter, Emile de Becque, who is the father of two half-Polynesian children (played by the lovably talented Lucas Jaye and Araceli Prasarttongosoth), and earns the adoration of the female lead, Nellie Forbush, a naval nurse, played by Stephanie Renee Wall.
Dapperly dressed, Cudia brings a stalwart presence to his character, and a voice that booms and reverberates with a melancholic robustness that can just as easily be seen and heard on the LA Opera stage. His rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening,” and the poignant “This Nearly Was Mine,” earn opera-reminiscent “bravos” from the audience, who can’t seem to get enough of Cudia’s lush and towering bari-tenor grandeur.
Stephanie Renee Wall absolutely keeps up with her stage counterpart by imbuing her character with a personable charm and effervescent Southern belle disposition. Wall’s “A Cockeyed Optimist” warms us up to her role’s Little Rock-origins, as do the playful and raucous spectacles of the ensemble-boosted “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” (even as Wall powers on with the number despite shampoo not being fully rinsed from her blonde locks) and “Honey Bun.” Yet, where Wall really captures us is when she reveals a vulnerable side to Nellie that is heartfelt and tender in “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” and “This is How It Feels,” while trying to come to terms with warnings by her mother and the prejudices inside her (that are specifically reactive to de Becque’s mixed-race children), which she learns to ultimately fight against. Needless to say, the chemistry between Cudia and Wall’s characters is palpable and meaningful in the sweetness and conflict of their juxtaposition.
Wall’s Nellie is joined by an assortment of seabees and seamen, who are under the authority of Captain George Brackett, performed by Michael Rothhaar, who has a bona fide and undeniable gravitas about him — along with comic undertones à la John Goodman — and Commander William Harbison, who is played with a sensible pragmatism by the underrated Brent Schindele. The defacto leader of the sailors is Jeff Skowron’s Luther Billis, an ambitious and entrepreneurial-minded seeker of good fortune and island escapades, who is delightfully funny and waggish. Skowron, who leads the charge during “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” (a song that may have inspired “Gee, Officer Krupke”?), and as the cross-dressing “Honey Bun” in the song with the same name, nearly steals the show out from everyone else as a master of mischief with his pitch-perfect interpretation of Billis.
As Billis, Skowron has a memorable interaction with a native of the island – a vendor of grass skirts and “real” shrunken human heads in Bloody Mary (Jodi Kimura). As a veteran of the theatre, Kimura garners a plethora of laughs by underscoring Mary with a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners essence who isn’t apprehensive about saying what is on her mind (i.e., “stingy bastard!”) even with her limited English vocabulary. On the other hand, as the mother of the prepossessing and nubile Liat (Hajin Cho), who mostly resides on the mystical island, “Bali Ha’i,” we see the softer, maternal side of Mary, who desires a better life for her daughter, and thus ardently endorses a union between Liat and the arriving Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Matt Rosell), particularly during the heart-rending “Happy Talk.”
And though the union seems to burgeon at first, heartbreak manifests through the cracks of fearing the proverbial unknown for Cable, whose discriminatory “dilemma” parallels that of Forbush’s and highlights overarching questions about the show’s message on racism. Rosell is excellent at portraying his character’s love for Liat – skillfully illustrated and reciprocated via Cho’s body language alone – while at the same time emoting a harrowing distress and uncertainty that he himself cannot fully understand. Rosell’s version of “Younger Than Springtime” is remarkably conveyed with an impassioned vibrato, and when the spring of his happiness turns into the winter of his grief, he laments the underlying cause and aims to overturn it in the illuminating “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
Certainly, though our minds may choose to deter us from the object of our desires, as a result of misplaced consternation, it comes down to us practicing reason and rationality so that we may transcend our conditioning to come together as human beings. In La Mirada Theatre’s profound production of “South Pacific,” we witness much more than just the high-stakes setting of World War II; we see different kinds of people meeting for the first time as an effect of the war. This is most important, at least for the narrative being told about race relations, for how we should accept and love those who are outwardly “dissimilar” to ourselves.
For more information about “South Pacific” at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada, CA, please visit lamiradatheatre.com