Mountain Play's Enchanted South Pacific

May 17 — June 15

Billy Baumeister  as Jerome, Peter Vilkin  as Emile de Becque, Kasey Hernandez as NganaSouth Pacific is one of those musicals that's hard to forget. Its Great White Way MVP status is up there with The Music Man, Annie, Camelot and My Fair Lady.

South Pacific brought something different, however, to the stage when it opened on Broadway in 1949. With memorable music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, it became a smash hit that sparked controversy for its treatment of racial prejudice.

This year's Mountain Play production of the musical is an opportunity to reacquaint audiences with, as well as introduce new audiences to, songs that have become American Songbook standards such as "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "Cockeyed Optimist" and "Some Enchanted Evening."

Linda Dunn directs the musical, which is performed at 2 p.m. each show day in a natural amphitheater on top of Mt. Tamalpais in Mill Valley. South Pacific opens this weekend and runs until mid-June. On the show's opening day only, May 18, kids age 4-13 will have free general seating. (The free tickets must be selected in the online shopping cart for the Mountain Play.) Children age 3 and under are free and there are no tickets required.

Taylor Chalker as Ensign Nellie ForbushThe program includes preshow activities and musical acts that offer entertainment for the whole family. As well, each day has a special theme with preshow entertainment at 12:30 p.m. that is tailored to the interest of the patrons (see below).

In addition, the Marin Symphony and the Mountain Play will hold a benefit dress rehearsal/preview of South Pacific, on Saturday, May 17, at 2 p.m. (doors open at 11 a.m.). A limited number of tickets are available with prices ranging from $40 to $30.

"It's a wonderful partnership," said Mountain Play associate producer Eileen Grady of the decades-old tradition of the fund-raiser that benefits the Marin Symphony.

Choosing South Pacific for the Mountain Play's 101st season was a popular decision, according to Grady. "It's a gorgeous show," she said, in a telephone interview. "The story is magnificent. The music is glorious. But mostly we're doing it because our patrons asked for it."

The last time the nonprofit theater group produced the musical was in 1997 when it was directed by Bay Area theatre dynamo James Dunn, who was previously married to the play's current director. Debra Chambliss provides the show's music direction with a live orchestra, and Barbara Bernardo its choreography.

Tyler Costin and Lt. Joseph Cable and Mia Klenk as LiatThis year's production will feature innovative special effects, according to Grady. "It's treating the musical almost like it's a film," she said. "We're making the stage come alive ... people will feel like they're transported to the South Pacific." While Grady declined to reveal specific special effects, she advised patrons to "let your mind wonder" and recall surprising moments in previous Mountain Play productions.

The musical, set on an island paradise during World War II, tells two parallel love stories that racial prejudice and war threaten. A young American nurse falls in love with an older, expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A secondary romance between a U.S. lieutenant and an island girl triggers his fears of social consequences if they marry. The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored through the musical, particularly in the lieutenant's musical soliloquy on racism, "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught."

Novelist James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, a short story collection on which the musical and its subsequent film were based, only briefly touches on racial prejudice unlike the Pulitzer Prize-winning show.

In his memoirs, Michener recounted how Rodgers and Hammerstein were counseled repeatedly in tryouts of the play to remove "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," which many, at the time, considered too preachy, or inappropriate in a musical. They resisted the pressure, Michener recalled: "The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that, even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in."

The dialogue about racism the musical sparked nearly 65 years ago continues to be a conversation today, said Grady, whose favorite song in the show is "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught." "I love hearing those moments when families tell us they had one of the most heartfelt discussions about racism in the car after they saw the show."

Its setting in a time of war also makes the musical relevant, she said, citing the current deployment of American soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere. "It [Sount Pacific] allows us to be able to think about what it's like for someone who has been shipped overseas. Nothing has changed about that since 1949. Families are still going through that."

At its core, South Pacific's magic is the lasting impression it makes on everyone who sees it, young and old, and men and women alike, say theater experts. "It's a great experience for the whole family and we're really able to give kids the chance to see their first musical," Grady said, noting that the outdoor venue offers young children "wiggle room" during the performance with various activities available for them during the two and one-half hour performance, such as face painting and puppet shows.

Grady, who first saw the film version of South Pacific as a young child, continued to sing the musical's praises. "It's a beautiful story that really engages people combined with music that's heartfelt and sweeping," she said. "It talks so much about the troubles of being human and the power of love."

Tailored interests schedule:

Marin Symphony and The Mountain Play benefit May 17, 2 p.m., Mt. Tamalpais amphitheater
Kids & Family Day (May 18) – preshow entertainment by Sharon Boucher’s Future Stars of Marin
Military Veteran Day (May 25) – preshow entertainment by Singers Marin
LGBT Day (June 1) – preshow entertainment by The Lollipop Guild – ensemble from the S.F Gay Men’s Chorus
Singles Day (June 7) – preshow entertainment by ‘Til Dawn
GLEEK/Musical Theatre Geek Day (June 8) – preshow entertainment by Marin Summer Theater
Luau Day (June 15) – preshow entertainment/Hawaiian Music and Dance

Journalist Molly Colin writes about the arts and cultural trends.