Carnett: Falling for 'South Pacific'

Twenty summers ago Orange Coast College reopened its remodeled Robert B. Moore Theatre with a rousing production of the beloved Broadway musical "South Pacific."

The campus theater originally opened in 1955.

The iconic 1949 Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein musical provided Americans with a coming-out-of-World War II treatise on racism.

OCC's production ran July 16 to 25, 1993, for eight performances. I watched every performance from the stage as a member of the cast. I'm totally unmusical, and director Alex Golson wisely cast me in a non-singing role.

My supporting character necessitated my presence in four or five scenes. The remaining 15 scenes or so I could watch — beginning with the overture's majestic swelling of the rich "South Pacific" theme — from the wings of the theater.

I relished every scene and every number, including "There is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Bali Hai," "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa my Hair" and "Younger than Springtime."

I first fell for "South Pacific" at the age of 10.

Based on James Michener's 1946 novel, "Tales of the South Pacific" (which I read in college), the musical's libretto makes a poignant case for tolerance. The show renders a pair of love stories that take place in a war-torn island paradise.

Nurse Nellie Forbush of Little Rock, Ark., struggles to accept island planter Emile de Becque's "half-caste" children from an earlier marriage. In a parallel story, Lt. Joe Cable falls in love with Liat, the lovely Tonkinese daughter of an eccentric island souvenir dealer, Bloody Mary.

I was introduced to "South Pacific" in 1955 when my father bought the original cast recording on 78-rpm vinyl. The production starred opera virtuoso Ezio Pinza and stage and screen star Mary Martin. I soon had every note and lyric memorized.

In 1958 I went to the Lido Theatre to view a motion picture version of the show, starring Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor. At 13, I fell for the island girl, Liat, played in the film by the beautiful France Nuyen.

OCC initially opened the Robert B. Moore Theatre with the show in 1956. I saw my first stage production of "South Pacific" when the college reprised the show in 1968. In 1993, OCC reopened its theatre, following an extensive renovation, with a third production of the musical. I portrayed base commander Capt. George Brackett.

The '93 cast was talented, dynamic and enthusiastic. Local well-known musical theater performer Nils Anderson was wonderful as Emile de Becque. Nils and I had become friends several years earlier, and I loved watching him — alone in a spotlight at center stage — close out Act One each night with a magnificent rendering of "Some Enchanted Evening." It brought down the house.

Young OCC musical theater student Terry Mowrey was captivating as Nellie. As a testament to her virtuosity, two years earlier she'd played the rough and tumble Bloody Mary in a different production of the show.

Sean Cox was uproarious as Luther Billis.

Sixteen years later, in 2009, my wife, Hedy, and I saw the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of the show at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. To our surprise, the cast included Nils Anderson's son, Eric, as Luther Billis' sidekick, Stewpot.

I'd known Eric when he was an OCC student. Following the final curtain, Hedy and I slipped backstage to visit him. It was a treat.

Nils passed away — much too early — a couple of years back. I often think of him, and miss him. He was a talented performer and dear friend.

The 2008-09 Broadway production was stunning, but I sincerely believe Nils' portrayal of de Becque at OCC was every bit as nuanced and brilliant as the Broadway portrayal. His performance was Broadway worthy!

Every night, just before curtain, Nils would come to me and say, "Jim, time to pray," and we'd repair to a quiet corner of the stage and ask God to calm our nerves, give us strength, and bless our efforts.

Never once did Nils Anderson let his audience down!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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