What is theater but a vehicle for the sharing of ideas and viewpoints? A good production allows an audience member to see himself in or relate to a situation playing out on stage. He may be delighted in what he sees or he may be offended. What he shouldn’t be is passive.
More than a half-century after “South Pacific” made its Broadway debut, the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical still has a profound effect on audiences. Its main story focuses on a romance between a mature French plantation owner and a young American nurse, while a secondary plot deals with an American serviceman who falls in love with a beautiful Tonkinese girl. Woven throughout these stories is the issue of prejudice, a hot-button topic in any era.
The Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre is collaborating with Oklahoma City University on a production of “South Pacific,” with each company providing cast members who will work in tandem. Helming this joint presentation is New York-based director Len Pfluger.
Christopher Carl heads the cast as Emile de Becque, and Tiffan Borelli stars as Ensign Nellie Forbush. Joining them are Linda Leonard as Bloody Mary, Nathan Goodrich as Lt. Joe Cable and Hannah Descartin as Liat. Jan McDaniel will conduct a 38-piece orchestra.
Carl played de Becque in the national touring production of “South Pacific,” which in turn was based on the 2008 Lincoln Center revival starring Kelli O’Hara as Forbush. Carl also served as standby for Broadway’s de Becque, Tony Award winner Paulo Szot.
“I spent a lot of time at Lincoln Center waiting to go on,” Carl said recently. “Paulo never missed a performance, so I only got to play de Becque on the road.
“My character is a really good man at heart, but he’s punished himself for more than half of his life for killing a man. He’s trying to redeem himself for that one act, and he sees this (opportunity for romance with Nellie) as his last chance for happiness. His whole life experience has made him a thoughtful gentleman.”
Learning from voices
For Borelli, this production is a much-anticipated homecoming. The New York-based actress is a graduate of Oklahoma City University (bachelor’s degree in 2004, master’s in 2006). One aspect the Oklahoma native didn’t have to struggle with was Forbush’s Southern accent.
“I like to think that less is more,” Borelli said of determining how much accent to employ. “The time and the era also help (to identify) her. It’s in her language and the pitch of her voice as well. She’s a girl who has faith in humanity, but she also talks herself in and out of a lot of things.
“Someone once told me that we’re all born with that voice in our head, but we have to teach it how to talk to us. Nellie thinks she is so open-minded but she still has things to figure out.”
The greatest of these is prejudice, something all of the principal characters in “South Pacific” have to sort out. Nellie is troubled when she learns that de Becque fathered two children with a Polynesian woman. Cable is forced to deal with similar multiracial challenges when he falls in love with Liat.
“We realize how little has changed,” Pfluger said of society’s views about prejudice in the 65 years that have passed since “South Pacific” opened. “My hope is that people who see it will maybe go home and have a similar discussion about how it relates today. It’s amazing how timely this piece still is.”
•When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. April 27.
•Where: Oklahoma City University’s Kirkpatrick Fine Arts Auditorium, 2501 N Blackwelder.
•Information: 208-5227 or www.cityrep.com.