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Review: Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre proves message of “South Pacific” is still relevant

UPDATED: Sat., July 15, 2017

Brandon Michael and Whitney Blair Miller in Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s “South Pacific.” (Courtesy of Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre)
Brandon Michael and Whitney Blair Miller in Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s “South Pacific.” (Courtesy of Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre)

“South Pacific” is set during World War II, but it’s not a musical about the war. Rather, as noted in the program, it’s about waiting – “waiting for a battle to start or the war to end,” director Tyler Krieg wrote.

It’s through this waiting that relationships develop, friendships solidify and tough conversations, conversations we’re still having today, occur.

At the top of the musical, we see Ensign Nellie Forbush (Whitney Blair Miller), a “hick from the sticks” of Little Rock, Arkansas, also known as “Knucklehead Nellie,” and middle-aged French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Brandon Michael) talking about their relationship on de Becque’s lavishly decorated terrace, having met a few weeks earlier at an officers’ club dance.

Miller brings a bubbly brightness to Forbush that never goes over the top, and Michael makes it easy for the audience to feel both the pain de Becque, forced to flee France and having lost his first wife, has experienced and the joy he feels after meeting Forbush.

“Twin Soliloquies” and “Some Enchanted Evening” are particularly tender moments between the two talented singers.

We also see a group of Navy Seabees, led by the wily Luther Billis (the hilarious Casey Raiha), killing time on the beach by joking with “Bloody Mary” (a fantastic Anasofia Gallagos), who tries to sell the sailors grass skirts, shrunken heads and other souvenirs while they teach her English phrases.

They lament their inability to travel to the island of Bali Ha’i, where the French women are, in the great group number “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame.”

The nurses’ group number, the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein classic “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” complete with an onstage shower for Forbush, is equally as fun.

Music director Brandon Peck, the orchestra and choreographer Kasey Davis deserve a special shout-out here for their work in making each musical number really come to life onstage.

We also see the arrival of Lt. Joseph Cable (a great Tim Suenkel), who was sent to the island to take part in a dangerous mission to a Japanese-held island planned by Capt. George Brackett (Daniel McKeever, who can impressively explode in anger at the drop of a hat, then just as quickly temper his emotions) and Cmdr. William Harbison (Henry McNulty, great as Brackett’s right-hand man).

Cable’s interactions with the Seabees is especially fun to watch, as is the Thanksgiving Follies show that opens Act 2.

In what “South Pacific” is perhaps most known for, we also see commentary against racism via the musical’s two couples, Forbush and de Becque and Cable and Liat, Bloody Mary’s daughter (a sweetly subtle performance from Helen Martin).

On the one hand is Forbush, who has trouble accepting de Becque’s children, Jerome and Ngana (the adorable brother-sister pair of Brenden and Kaleigh Hopkins), because of their Polynesian mother.

On the other, after de Becque questions these prejudices, is Cable, who initially tells Bloody Mary he can’t marry Liat because she is Tonkinese but later changes his tune and sings about how racism is not something you’re born with but something that comes from your upbringing, in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Lyrics like “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/ Of people whose eyes are oddly made/ And people whose skin is a different shade,” groundbreaking when “South Pacific” premiered in 1949, sadly still ring true.

Yes, we’ve come a long way since then, but as long as portions of society still think as Forbush does in Act 1, we’ll still need shows like “South Pacific” and Cable’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” to point us in the right direction.

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