Preview: South Pacific at TUTS

Director Taibi Magar tends to do a lot of newer, experimental plays. But when Theatre Under the Stars Artistic Director Dan Knechtges approached her about doing South Pacific, she readily said yes.

“It’s my mother’s favorite musical. She’s the reason I’m in theater. She introduced me to the world of theater. She likes a lot of musicals but South Pacific is her favorite,” said Magar (Spring Awakening). “So I did it out of love for my mother but when I got in there and started re-reading it I realized it does has some problematic areas for sure. But I also found every  word of ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ to be totally true.”

Magar does a lot of work in the areas of racism and prejudice she said, which she believes enabled her to deal with the musical in the best way possible. “I can both hold that there’s a lot of baggage with the show in terms of how it’s performed and, of course, some of the writing is really leaning to some problematic stereotypes for the Asian community.

“I recognize that, but I also hear in Rodgers and Hammerstein a real desire to fight racism. Georgia outlawed the musical when it came; they wanted that song cut. They were doing something brave and bold for artists of the time.”

Based on the James Michener Pulitzer Prize-winning book (1947) of the same name, the musical prospered despite any controversy, winning the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and multiple Tony awards, and influencing the direction of theater for years to come. 

South Pacific focuses in part on the story of Nellie Forbush, a young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas who is stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II and falls in love with the French plantation owner there. The planter, Emile de Becque, is the father of two half-Polynesian children from his previous marriage and when Nellie discovers that, she can’t overcome her prejudices and calls off their engagement.

Racial prejudice is also explored in the relationship between U.S. Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable and Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat. Although Bloody Mary pushes for the couple to marry, Cable refuses, knowing that his own family could not accept him marrying the young Tonkinese woman. Comic relief is provided by Seaman Luther Billis and his extracurricular attempts to make money.

The songs from the musical read like a greatest hits album, Besides “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” there’s “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “”Younger Than Springtime,” “Bali Ha’i” — to name just some.

“The orchestra is going to be to die for,” Magar said. “How often do you get to hear a 26 person orchestra with major league talented singers. It’s going to be a feast for the ears.”

Saying she won’t change the lines in a classic play, Magar says there are still ways to present its characters differently in how they are enacted on stage.

“There’s a performance of Bloody Mary that deepens her and gives her true humanity. You find ways in staging to bring this out. She’s the smartest person by far in the piece, by far. She’s a war survivor. To see her virtuosity and see the way that the people on the island can revere her for that.

“And also an approach to ‘Happy Talk’ that we’re taking. Liat marrying Cable is her only choice, is the best choice. You can give her agency in terms of how she moves on stage. Not a submissive kowtowing sexualized object, but someone who has a full inner life and has a true desire for Cable and is not being pimped out by her mother.”

It’s the imaginative properties of theater that have continued to draw Magar to it as a career. “I think that I love sitting in a dark room and thinking about big things with other people which is essentially what theater is. I love the use of imagination in the theater. I think that imagination is intrinsic to furthering society. If we can’t imagine a better world and we can’t critically think about the world then how do we make it better?

“So much of musical theater today is built upon the legacy of South Pacific. It’s an important piece of culture. It’s an important piece of American history. Understand what Rodgers and Hammerstein were after. The complexity of that is really interesting. They really were trying to do something that was really extraordinary, that was highly rebellious for the time.

Performances are scheduled for February 8-20 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Guests 12 and older must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination and wear masks while in the center. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $40-$136.

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