WORTHINGTON - If you’re a cock-eyed optimist seeking an enchanted evening this weekend when the spring-like weather turns cold, head to the South Pacific.
Well, maybe go only as far as Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center, where Worthington High School (WHS) students will present four performances of the acclaimed Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” from Thursday through Sunday.
A cast of 44 ninth- through 12th-graders will sing and dance their way through the show, which won multiple Tony Awards on Broadway in 1949 and was most recently revived in 2008.
“‘South Pacific’ is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical,” declared director Eric Parrish.
“I like it better than ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘The King and I,’ mainly because of its music.”
With famous numbers such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Bali Ha’i” and “Honey Bun,” all audience members are sure to have at least one tune running through their heads at the end of the night.
“Personally, I love ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ because it’s a recitative that progresses into an operatic ballad,” explained Parrish.
In this WHS production, senior Edgar Avila sings the classic piece in his portrayal of Emile de Becque, an exiled French plantation owner who quickly falls in love with Ensign Nellie Forbush (depicted by senior Skyla Rautenkranz) when the U.S. military arrives in the South Pacific during World War II.
As the romance between de Becque and the vivacious but sheltered Forbush, who hails from Arkansas, rises and falls, so too does the romance between U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Joseph Cable (senior Matt DeSmith) and Polynesian native Liat (junior Tien Truong). Will ingrained prejudices win out over love and tolerance? And who will survive when the realities of war finally arrive?
Added to the mix for comic relief are Luther Billis and Bloody Mary (seniors Alex Scholtes and Than Than Kyaw, respectively), plus a bevy of nurses and bored seamen who think action (whether with the war or women) will never come their way. Throw in an array of natives and French schoolgirls on the mysterious island of Bali Ha’i and the scene is largely complete.
“‘South Pacific’ is based on real events in history, and we’ve taken opportunities to have conversations about World War II and this time period as we’ve gone along,” said Parrish, noting the stark contrast “South Pacific” presents to last year’s WHS musical, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
“This isn’t just about being on stage, singing and dancing, but also involves learning about history and ourselves,” asserted Parrish. “That makes this a quality experience from which everyone can learn.”
In casting the show, Parrish chose 44 out of 60 auditioning students.
“That speaks to the talent of this community, and I’m super pleased with how well everyone is singing,” said Parrish.
“None of the six principals were principals in past shows, so this offers a whole new set of opportunities for a different group of kids. As a director, that’s partly what inspires me; how can we help this cast be the best they can be, and how can we highlight elements that aren’t necessarily immediately apparent to everyone?”
A sense of collaboration and camaraderie among the cast and 11-member stage and technical crew was emphasized in student interviews.
“I know it’s going to be a wonderful show because everyone in the cast and crew is working really hard on it,” assured Kyaw.
Added junior Max Langerud (the stern Captain Brackett in “South Pacific”), “Everyone is cool, and I get to yell a lot.”
As de Becque, Avila is stretched with vocal solos, duets and abundant stage time.
“I get to express my singing, and I’m enjoying it,” said Avila, who moved to Worthington at the start of his sophomore year.
“I’ve made a lot of new friends, and it’s been fun to bond and be myself among all the people involved.”
Although Rautenkranz grew up in Worthington, she spent the entire previous year as the town’s student representative in Crailsheim, Germany - an experience she said made it much easier for her to inhabit the role of Nellie Forbush, a young nurse attempting to find her way in a land far from home.
“I can relate to Nellie a lot because of being in Germany,” said Rautenkranz. “There’s a line I say as Nellie, ‘I wanted to see the world - outside Little Rock, I mean - and I wanted to meet new kinds of people and find out if I liked them better, and I’m finding out.’”
“That sticks out for me and I love saying it,” she continued. “Nellie needs to learn French to speak with Emile’s children (portrayed by Worthington elementary students Keyon Xanaxay and Katie Robinson), and I had to learn German to better communicate with everyone, which I eventually did - and so does Nellie.
“Honestly, I think Nellie and I are the exact same person; she’s kind of a ditzy character, but I’m the same way sometimes.”
Like Avila, this is the first time Rautenkranz has anchored a musical in a leading role.
“I’m learning that it’s not only about saying the lines or doing the steps, but about the walk, the talk, the posture, everything,” observed Rautenkranz. “It’s hard to act the romance, but it’s fun to create a little bit of drama like that, too.”
Scholtes, as the enterprising and slightly obnoxious Billis, is a veteran of the local high school theater scene, having acted in three previous musicals and two fall plays.
“This role is an entire paradigm shift,” said Scholtes. “There’s a lot of new stuff for me, and it’s interesting because there’s all this extreme drama surrounding me while I’m all goofy.
“I also had to overcome some stage fright about belly dancing,” he laughed.
Parrish said he chose “South Pacific” in part because of the fact that “Rodgers and Hammerstein were socially aware writers who were very forward thinking in how they wrote musicals and addressed topics,” he noted.
“They were a landmark team that contributed to the evolution of musical theater, and this show also allows us to be inclusive of the existing diversity at WHS and in this community.”
Three student assistants (Brianna Newman, Micah Johnson and Sarah DeSmith) have been part of the behind-the-scenes action from the start, and Parrish was additionally aided in mounting the production by music director Kerry Johnson, choreographer Sydney Place-Sallstrom, costume coordinator Roxanne Hayenga, lighting designer Erin Belpedio and sound and technical director Mark Brodin. Several parents helped with set construction and other preparatory tasks, and a six-member pit band, including three students, provides accompaniment.
“They all appreciate that this is educational theater, equally about the learning experiences for the students as about the show itself, and they take the time needed to teach their jobs and techniques to the students,” said Parrish of his production team.
That’s consistent with what Scholtes says is great about being in a musical.
“The first dress rehearsal is the best part, when everything comes together - and even when it doesn’t, it’s cool how we can tackle issues and move on,” said Scholtes.
Assured Rautenkranz, “Worthington has a lot of talent so I hope people will come out to see it for themselves.”
Worthington High School’s “South Pacific” performances take place at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center, 714 13 th St., Worthington, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Reserved tickets are available at the box office from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, and prior to each show. District 518 activity passes will be honored only for the Sunday show. For more information, contact the box office at 376-9101.