CENTERVILLE — To define classical musical theater, Webster’s might just as well have this entry: “See ‘South Pacific.’ ”
“It’s not just singing and dancing, it’s deep storytelling, sharing culture, really paying homage to a time in our history when we as Americans really bonded strongly with each other,” says Jim Christian about the show that arrived on Broadway only four years after V-J Day. “That patriotism and nationalism is something precious to us, but it’s all too rare anymore.”
Christian, the director of CenterPoint Legacy Theatre’s production of “South Pacific,” knows why the show is considered by many the finest musical ever written: “It’s really a great piece of literature.”
Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and director Joshua Logan collaborated to adapt James A. Michener’s “Tales from the South Pacific” for the stage. Both the novel and the musical were awarded Pulitzer Prizes, and the honor for “South Pacific” was the first for a musical.
When “South Pacific” premiered on Broadway in 1949, its exploration of themes of racial prejudice, tolerance and transformation was groundbreaking, but there remains a timeless quality that can be appreciated today.
“The show is surprisingly political while also telling this beautiful love story,” Christian says. “It’s so universal, because it speaks across all generations because everybody deals with their different variations on prejudice and having to learn to get over misconceptions that we have about each other.”
The central theme of “South Pacific” is its candid portrayal of racial prejudice. Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner, lives on the island in the South Pacific where Ensign Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse from Little Rock, Ark., is stationed during World War II. Nellie falls for Emile, then pulls back once she learns that he is the father of two children whose mother, now dead, was Polynesian.
A second relationship that frames “South Pacific” is between the Marine Lt. Joseph Cable, an Ivy Leaguer, and Liat, a young Tonkinese woman. The two fall in love, but Cable, worried about how his family and friends back in Philadelphia would react, refuses to marry her.
In “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” Cable sings, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear to be afraid of people whose skin is a different shade to hate all the people your relatives hate.”
“There were so many forces that wanted that song cut from the show, but Rodgers and Hammerstein adamantly refused,” Christian explains. “They said, ‘If that song goes, the show goes.’ Because they held out, we have one of the most beautiful, classical moments in American musical theater.”
He adds the importance of the rapturous music by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lyrics cannot be overlooked.
“This show has a score with so many well-known songs in it,” Christian says. “Including ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ ‘There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,’ ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,’ ‘A Cockeyed Optimist,’ ‘A Wonderful Guy,’ ‘Younger Than Springtime’ — the list just goes on and on.”
Christian believes more songs from “South Pacific” have entered the Great American Songbook than from any other Rodgers and Hammerstein theater work and speculates that there may be more from this show than from any other single musical.
An aspect that has been “wonderful” is “amazing participation from the Polynesian community,” Christian says. “In a show that is so much about race, culture and ethnicity, we’re really able to do it justice because we have people who were there and understand. They bring not only the political aspect but also the beauty.”
This is the second time Christian has led a “South Pacific” production and he has acted in two previous stagings.
The director counts this show as his favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and says, “It really has been a joy to work on ‘South Pacific’ once again.”
If you go:
What: “South Pacific”
Where: CenterPoint Legacy Theatre at the Davis Center for the Performing Arts in Centerville
When: April 23-May 19
How much: $20-$17