Eight hours by plane from Los Angeles, halfway across the seemingly endless crystal blue expanse of the largest ocean in the world, lie the islands of French Polynesia. Remote, serene and breathtakingly beautiful, they have nonetheless been a flashpoint for violence and interracial conflict through much of their history.
Cultures have clashed in this paradise for centuries, and that conflict sets the backdrop for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical, “South Pacific,” which opened May 10 at Westminster Community Playhouse.
Set during World War II, “South Pacific” tells the story of two Americans who fall in love, confront their own prejudices and learn to appreciate the beauty in themselves, in local culture and in those who differ from them. It is a tale of inner ugliness contrasted with outer beauty, set to the tune of some truly lovely music.
Director Patricia Miller has mounted a thoroughly enjoyable production of this classic. Miller is an experienced director, and she gets the most out of her actors and the small, black box theater.
Her staging immerses the audience in the action, like they are sitting on an island beach. She takes advantage of the intimate setting to bring her audience closer to the characters, which enhances the empathy we feel for them as the show plays out. Plus, she has some amazing singers to work with.
At the center of “South Pacific” is the relationship between American military nurse Nellie Forbush and Frenchman Emile de Becque.
Emily Marie Border skillfully carries the show as Nellie, the self-described “hick” from Little Rock, Ark., who must come to terms with her own prejudices. Border’s voice is sweet and clear, and her strong acting infuses many of her well known songs with a touch of extra character. Border deftly displays both innocence and conviction.
Jesse Seann Atkinson may be the perfect Emile. With handsome looks and a classy carriage, Atkinson looks just enough older to have two children and a mysterious past while also emitting the charm to woo the younger Nellie. His rich baritone voice masterfully delivers some of the show’s prettiest songs, from “Some Enchanted Evening” to “This Nearly was Mine.”
Derek Mitchell also showcases his voice in his role as the younger lover, Lt. Joseph Cable. From the first note he sings, it is clear that his vocal ability will entrance the audience throughout his character’s struggles with love, loss, paradise and prejudice. He delivers with each song.
Beyond the lovers, “South Pacific” features two different takes on comic relief in the guise of one opportunistic entrepreneur from each culture. Eric Schiffer brings the right combination of frivolous womanizing and honest concern as Seabee Luther Billis.
As his counterpart and foil, Randi Tahara seems to take pure joy in the role of Bloody Mary. In modern thinking, it is easy to cringe at the American sailors taunting Bloody Mary early on. The same is true when Mary pawns off her daughter Liat (Rayzeen Skiles) to a strange American soldier. But the deeper reasons for their actions provide the true depth of this show.
The lighting design created by Miller and Bob Nydegger combine with Bradley Miller and Tom Mynar’s set design to bring the audience into the action and always contrast the conflict on stage with the beauty of the ever present island backdrop.
Just as the islands of the South Pacific have entranced Americans for generations, the musical has remained relevant and enjoyable. It contains some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most gorgeous songs, but it also hits modern social consciousness harder than most musicals of its age.
Unfortunately, the themes of racism and cultural conflict are just as real now as they were when this show was written. Paradise is not perfect, and “South Pacific” reminds us that there is always struggle through pain to reach beauty.
If You Go
What: “South Pacific”
Where: Westminster Community Playhouse
When: Through June 1
Cost: $10 to $25
Information: 714-893-8626, wcpstage.com
Timothy Titus, the son of regular theater critic Tom Titus, occasionally reviews local theater for TimesOC.