Some enchanted evening

South Pacific comes to The Maryland Theatre

South Pacific comes to The Maryland Theatre

September 23, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

Seneca Burr grew up listening to the music of "South Pacific." But without the context of the show to guide him, he experienced the songs as if they were scattered puzzle pieces forming a fuzzy image.

Now two weeks into rehearsals for his first national tour, one thought stands out for the novice musical thespian since he's seen every piece fall into place.

"The songs are so damn catchy," he says. "There's a reason it's a classic. Whenever I leave rehearsal, I'm humming one song or another."


Navigating the choppy waters of two loves fractured by race and prejudice, the Tony-award winning Rodgers and Hammerstein musical kicks off its seven-month tour Tuesday, Sept. 24, at The Maryland Theatre.

The Theatre Council's touring cast and crew are hoping the show is as infectious as the music burned in Burr's brain.

A week before opening curtain, though, the actors are getting their first look at the set in Pomona, N.J., not exactly an island paradise, but it'll do.

Running late early on a Monday morning, stage manager Michael John Orsino says getting the show on the road requires a whirlwind of activity and discipline as actors become acquainted with the set even as they prepare for what at times may seem like an endless road trip.

So far so good. Theatre Council veteran Holly Davis stars as Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Arkansas who falls in love with French planter Emile, even as her prejudices threaten their relationship and World War II rages, casting a pall across island life.

"As far as classic music theater is concerned, it's as good as it gets," Davis says. "I think 'South Pacific' was a revolutionary show when it was first produced. Now, I think with everything that's gone on in the world and New York, we're becoming acclimated with the military being involved in our lives. And (the show) can point out new aspects it didn't before."

Singer Jan Horvath, in Hagerstown this weekend to perform with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, portrayed Nellie in a production seen by author James Michener, who wrote the book upon which Rodgers and Hammerstein based their musical.

"When a show is well written, you can do it in a high school, a grade school and it still works, and it's one of those shows," Horvath says. "You can see that show in a big, full production on Broadway and you can see it on a small scale and it works, and some of the new shows don't."

Take "Phantom of the Opera." A great show, Horvath says, but it loses a little when the grandeur of Broadway's incarnation is translated to smaller community stages.

Goofing his way through scene after scene as Seabee Luther Billis, a source of comic relief in the show, Burr appreciates the depth of Michener's writing. And the balance between frothy musical comedy and weightier subject matter remains relevant more than a half-century after its debut. The show has endured several stage incarnations, a 1965 film and a recent television version.

"I don't know if you think of 'South Pacific' and think of great writing. I certainly didn't," Burr says. "But he deals with themes of racism and ageism. I hate to use the word timeless, but certainly he takes things we think about and talk about today and presents them in a topical way."

With all the attention given the story of Nellie Forbush, you'd think Davis would have to figure a way to differentiate her performance from other actresses who have claimed the role, like Mary Martin or Glenn Close.

Good thing she can't remember much from seeing the movie as a child. And aside from making her professional debut in an early 1990s "South Pacific" production in Galveston, Texas, Davis hasn't seen the stage version.

What she has drawn upon is the strength of a great character with several layers to explore.

"She's just so open and alive. There's nothing that can stand in her way, she thinks, in the beginning of the show, and she is I think the one character that evolves in the show," Davis says. "I think it makes it easier (as an actor). It's all right there; the material supports the actor because the material is so good. (Nellie) has a very clear path, so that makes it easier. I can see where she's going from point A to point Z."

Orsino looks at the musical and enjoys its simpler tones. Parents can feel free to bring children without worrying about strong language. And he finds it easy to pull for the relationship between Nellie and Emile, hoping they wind up together as each confronts the varied obstacles blocking their love for one another.

"It seems there's stuff here that's not out of date. The music is of an era, certainly, but themes and story, if presented simply and frankly, are things that will resonate with people," Burr agrees. "I think that's it's lasting value. People can still identify with the struggles of the people up there."

If you go:

"South Pacific," part of the 2002-03 Broadway at the Maryland series

8 p.m.

Tuesday, Sept. 24

The Maryland Theatre

21 S. Potomac St.


Tickets cost $45 and $55, and are available by calling 301-790-2000 or in person at The Maryland Theatre box office, 27 S. Potomac St.

For information, call 301-790-2000.

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