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South Pacific’s enduring message on diversity

Jules Becker
South Pacific’s enduring message on diversity

Rodgers and Hammerstein took Broadway a quantum leap forward in understanding when they targeted the teaching of prejudice in the “South Pacific” stunner “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Fans of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning show know that this powerful number unflinchingly denounces the transmission of bigotry from adults to children.

This song was delivered with the right toughness in the recent landmark 2008 revival of the 1949 show. The number took on even stronger resonance as black soldiers react to the description of prejudice it presents.

 While Shana Donovan as Lieutenant Cable in the tour forcefully explained why the Philadelphia native officer struggles to rise above prejudice and commit to Tonkinese love Liat — tenderly played by Hsin Yu Liao — three black navy Seabees listen stage left behind him. As Cable admits that people are taught at 6, 7 and 8 to hate the people others hate, the soldiers gradually exit.

One leaves — virtually immediately — repulsed by the image of prejudice. A second exits about midway as if trying to deal with hatred but clearly frustrated. The third leaves near the end of the song, having heard Cable’s confession but clearly as sad as his counterparts.

This kind of story telling clearly added to the enormity of the statement about bigotry toward black American soldiers as well as Pacific islanders, like Liat and her mother Mary (Bloody Mary).

The actors playing the three soldiers did have moments of enjoyment during the horseplay of the soldiers in the exuberant ensemble number “Bloody Mary.” But in the end, these “heroes” eventually return to America and are treated with the same racism as before they left.

Even on stage, there are moments when they sit or move apart from their white fellow soldiers as though Sarna Lapine,  in recreating Bartlett Sher’s original direction, wanted to add an extra dimension to the musical’s prescient insights about racism.

So it goes for the entire fine tour. Macelo Guzzo delivers handsome French islander Emile de Becque’s standout romantic solos — “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” — with great resonance and remarkable tone, though his acting could be a bit more expressive as his feeling for Nellie Forbush grows from respect to love.

Katie Reid has the right directness as the Arkansas nurse ensign and does well expressing her inner conflict about both love and understanding of diversity. African American child performers Judae’a Brown as Emil’s daughter Ngana and Cole Bullock as his son Jerome — both children from a deceased Polynesian mother — were very appealing as they grow to love Nellie and in their engaging French duet “Dites-Moi.”

Other strong performers in a first-rate cast were Christian Marriner and Cathy Foy-Mahi as Bloody Mary. Foy-Mahi’s  evocative “Bali-Ha’i” proved very stirring.

This terrific revival of “South Pacific” — and its messages about love, understanding, diversity and racism —  were as timely as ever.