ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The musical partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein is surely the most successful in Broadway history. With such classics as “Oklahoma,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Carousel” the pair dominated the golden age of the Broadway musical in the 1940s and 1950s. One of their best, “South Pacific,” is receiving an outstanding revival at Albuquerque Little Theatre, directed with finesse and gusto by Bill Potenziani.
“South Pacific” brings together two unlikely lovers who meet on a South Pacific island captured by the U.S. during World War II. Emile de Emile is a sophisticated, middle-aged Frenchman who settled on the island many years ago when he fled his native country after killing “a bully.”
He is now a successful plantation owner with two children from his first wife, a Polynesian woman who died before the start of the play.
Nellie Forbush is an American nurse from Little Rock, Ark., much younger than Emile. While Emile reads Proust, Nellie doesn’t read at all. But that is not the problem; after all, love can surpass all such barriers. The only insurmountable barrier here is Nellie’s unconscious racism. In fact, the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” was considered controversial in 1949, just a few years before the start of the civil rights era and the year the musical premiered on Broadway.
The song explicitly rebukes racist ignorance: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade.” Although the two are madly in love, Nellie breaks off the relationship when she learns that her lover was previously married to a woman who was not white.
The difficult decision to terminate the relationship is expressed musically in one of the musical’s most famous songs, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” Other classics from the show include “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy,” “Bali Hai” and “Younger Than Springtime” – all of which are rendered brilliantly by the talented singers.
Thankfully, the acting is also top-notch.
Jenni Goodman has a beautiful singing voice and is wonderful as Nellie, capturing in equal measure both her charm and ebullience and the subtle racist sentiment that almost destroys her blossoming love. The character – as well as Goodman’s performance – is a striking testimony to how the power of environmental conditioning can poison even a superior nature such as hers.
As her lover, Emile, Mark Pino is Goodman’s equal, evincing charm and sophistication.
Other standouts include Matthew Amend, Wyndra Salazar Lucas, Calandra Wilson and Joshua Vallano.
Thanks to the talented design team – led by costume designers Joe Moncada and Sharon Welz, set designers Bill Potenziani and Glenn Pepe, and lighting designer Billy Tubb – this production is also a feast for the senses, lush in rich colors and sinuous shapes.
“South Pacific” is playing through April 2 at ALT, 224 San Pasquale, in Old Town. Go to albuquerquelittletheatre.org or call 242-4750 to make reservations.