Surry Arts Council is presenting a summer musical production that is as current as tomorrow’s headlines, despite the fact the show was originally produced 69 years ago.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” premiered on Broadway in 1949, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950, was adapted to the big screen in 1958, the small screen in 2001, and has been revived many times, including the upcoming Surry Arts Council production at The Andy Griffith Theater Saturday through Monday.
The show has been entertaining audiences for generations with songs like “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” and”Bali Ha’i.”
But alongside the hummable, toe-tapping melodies and memorable lyrics is a story that is not quite so lighthearted.
“The themes of racism and intolerance are certainly fitting in today’s climate,” said Amanda Bernard, who is directing the Andy Griffith Playhouse production.
Barnard directed another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (“Oklahoma!”) at the Playhouse in 2017 and directed a children’s theater production of “Beauty and the Beast, Jr.” in between the two.
“We have been choosing shows that reflect a larger context and what’s going on in the world,” said Tanya Jones, SAC executive director.
Jones cited recent productions of “Hairspray,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Big River” as examples.
“We actually do think of those things. And some shows, we choose purely for entertainment.”
Like most Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, several plot lines and love stories are intertwined into a single narrative.
An American nurse (Nellie Forbush, played by Abby Brady) is stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II and falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner (Emile de Becque, played by Tyler Matanick) who has mixed-race children, a development that troubles Nellie.
Simultaneously, a U.S. lieutenant (Lt. Joseph Cable, played by Scott Kniskern) and a young Tonkinese woman (Liat, played by MacKenzie Boyles) become involved, and he has to deal with his fears of the consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart.
Supporting characters, including a comic petty officer (Seabee Luther Billis, played by Paul Denny) and the Tonkinese girl’s mother, (Bloody Mary, played by Emily Mauck) help to tie the stories together.
Issues stemming from bi-racial relationships drive the story, interspersed with comic relief, exotic locales and tuneful songs until Lt. Cable’s number “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” drops all pretense of subtlety.
“It starts as an exotic adventure,” said Barnard. “But the characters discover human truths and experience love in all its forms.”
The 35-member cast consists of 15 principals and an ensemble that makes up several choruses — French ladies, islanders, sailors and nurses, according to Barnard.
“The cast ranges in age from seven to early eighties,” said Barnard. “There are faces people will recognize, and some that have never been seen onstage before.”
Barnard added that almost everyone in the cast also worked out of the spotlight painting scenery, working on costumes, lights, or props, in addition to the people already working backstage.
“This is truly a community production,” she said.
The youngest cast member, Chase Kniskern, 7, is a stage veteran. “South Pacific” is his fourth show after debuting in “Oklahoma” last year. Chase discusses the show, patiently multi-tasking while he is being fitted with a body mic for Tuesday’s technical rehearsal.
Chase’s father, Scott Kniskern, plays Lt. Cable, and said that there’s a lot of driving involved with having a child in four plays in a year’s time.
“I enjoy doing it. He enjoys doing it. We’re having fun. I can help him,” said Kniskern, of being in the same show with his son. “I don’t just worry about me and my cues. I’m worrying about him too. In this show, we’re never on stage at the same time.”
“One time,” said Chase.
After a little father/son back and forth, Kniskern amends his statement, “We’re only on stage together one time.”
Kniskern said his five-year-old daughter is already talking about the stage. “My wife has no interest. She likes to come and watch.”
Female lead Abby Brady, the production’s Nellie Forbush, said she was in a play in 2014 and became addicted.
“I’ve been in almost every show since,” she said. “South Pacific” is her favorite of the shows she’s been in so far.
Some of the “South Pacific” cast and crew may have aspirations to someday make the leap to the professional stage, but male lead Tyler Matanick, who plays Emile de Becque, has already done that, and took a temporary leap back into community theater.
“I came from a paying contract to doing this for fun,” said Matanick.
Matanick explained that his fiancée took a job in Mount Airy in January, and he came here last month to be with her. Before that, he worked with the Goodman Theater in Chicago and Blue Gate Theater and toured America and Canada with Missoula Children’s Theater.
Shelby Coleman has been working at creating a dance program for Surry Arts Council and choreographed “South Pacific.” Unlike the words and music of a copyrighted work, Coleman said she is free to create original choreography for the show. She has added dances to some of the solo songs, so that performers will be singing, dancing and acting all at the same time.
“We have some really talented dancers, allowing us to do that. That’s the hard part, putting it all together. They’re becoming triple threats.”
“I get to cross dress for the first time,” said Susan Lawrence, who has performed many times at The Andy Griffith Playhouse, but never in a male role.
Lawrence is one of several women who will be both an island girl and a sailor at different points in the performance.
Madi Chitty is an assistant director, and is also doing double duty in male and female choruses. She said that playing a gender not one’s own, while never easy, will be further complicated by switching back and forth during the course of the performance.
As far as hair, makeup and costume challenges, “we’re testing that tomorrow,” she said with a laugh.
Lawrence demonstrates her newly acquired man-spreading skills by thrusting her legs far apart in her seat, jerking her upper body forward, and giving a little grunt. She looks as if she might be ready to spit, but she does not.
“Getting the man walk down was the hardest part,” she said. “But I have four brothers to pull from.”
After two months of three hours a night, five days a week, director Barnard sees the finish line approaching.
“I do like the classics,” she said. “They appeal to people who are familiar to them, and someone who is just getting introduced to them. They’re classics for a reason.”
“South Pacific” opens Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with additional performances on Sunday at 3 p.m. and Monday at 7:30 p.m. at The Andy Griffith Playhouse, 218 Rockford St. Reserved seats are $15 and are available at SurryArts.org or call 336-786-7998.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.