Enchanting for all

Editor's note: This corrects who will be playing Emile de Becque.

It may be rare, but sometimes landing a great part doesn't depend on who you know. Just ask Christopher Johnstone.

Johnstone has performed in operatic works like "The Pirates of Penzance" and "The Rape of Lucretia," as well as being a soloist for the Boston Pops and other orchestral performances.

Despite having a background much heavier in operatic and classical vocal performance than musical theater, the baritone ended up with a part in the touring production of the renowned revival of "South Pacific" following a routine open call in New York City.

In fact, Johnstone said he wasn't even very familiar with "South Pacific" prior to auditioning.

"I just knew it was a classic show, and I knew a few of the songs from it and that it was successful on Broadway," he said. "I had seen it once with Robert Goulet; that was pretty much it. Once I got called back, I went to see it and listened to the recording. I got more and more excited once I realized what a tour de force it was."

But he never even expected to get the role, given the auditioning process.

"It was kind of like a cattle call," Johnstone said. Actors signed up for a time to perform, and each time they were called back — if they were called back — they sung and read lines for more and more people.

"I wasn't holding my breath," Johnstone said. "It was going well, but I didn't think I would get it. I actually was worried a lot about if [taking the role] would be frowned upon in the classical world, but I got over it. It won seven Tony Awards, and with this director, you can't pass it up."

The revival of "South Pacific," directed by Bartlett Sher, swept the Tonys in 2008. The national tour debuted in San Francisco last year, and stars Carmen Cusack, who played Elphaba in the "Wicked" national tour, as Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. Leading operatic baritone David Pittsinger plays Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner who steals her heart in a time of prejudice and war.

Along with performing in the ensemble, Johnstone is the understudy for the actors who play Emile and Lt. Cable, another prominent role — in part because of his operatic background.

"I think it's nice for them to have someone who can do both if they need it," Johnstone said. "For me, it's been awesome because it gives me plenty to do. I can look at the show from three different angles, which is really fun."

This is Johnstone's first time touring in a Broadway production.

"It's great being able to see the country," he said. "The show deals a lot with racism, so you find it gets a little quieter in those tense moments in the South, especially. You definitely get different reactions. At matinees, where there's an older crowd, they laugh at different things."

The show has not been updated for current-day audiences, he said, so some terminology and slang may go over the heads of younger viewers.

The cast is required to be in top shape, both for their dance and physical requirements as well as for their voices, so they frequent the gym while on the road, and take refresher courses and lessons.

"I'm more of a classical baritone, but in this year I've learned to bridge the gap," Johnstone said. "That definitely was something I had to deal with, but it's been fun to see the differences and learn what to do for both."

Johnstone said he has found that "South Pacific" has the same effect on new audiences as it did when it first opened.

"That's one of the things that surprised me — that it's still so current today, and every night people young and old jump up from their seats to do a standing ovation," Johnstone said.

"I also was surprised to find out what songs were in it; everyone says, 'Oh, that's where that song's from.' You'll leave the theater singing them. Even though it's not 'Wicked,' it's just as valid today.

If You Go

What: "South Pacific"

When: Tuesday to Oct. 24

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: $20 and up

Information: (714) 556-2787 or ocpac.org

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