Baton Rouge Little Theater bringing back musical for third run
Gerard Killebrew’s uncle bought tickets to see South Pacific during its original run on Broadway.
That was in 1949 at the Majestic Theatre. Killebrew’s uncle was in the U.S. Marines at the time and would serve tours of duty in the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.
But he was first and foremost a member of what is now known as the Greatest Generation, that group of military men and women who served during World War II.
Killebrew’s uncle had been stationed in the South Pacific, and the Marine naturally was curious about the musical. So, both uncle and aunt made the trip to Broadway to see what would become Richard Rogers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s masterpiece.
And they liked it.
Then they bought the two-record set of songs from the musical, which they eventually passed along to Killebrew’s mom. But they might as well have given it to her 7-year-old son, because he immediately began listening to it.
That’s how old Killebrew was at the time. He learned all the songs, knew all the words. And he knew he one day wanted to be a part of South Pacific. But not just any part. No, Killebrew knew he wanted to step into the role of Emile de Becque, the wise, French plantation owner.
“And I tried out for the part when Baton Rouge Little Theater restaged the play 25 years ago in 1987,” Killebrew said. “But I didn’t get it, because I was at the ripe old age of 29.”
“They said I was too young,” he said. “They were right.”
But now the timing’s right. Killebrew is old enough to play Emile in Baton Rouge Little Theater’s 50th anniversary summer musical production of South Pacific, which opens Friday, July 6.
The little theater first staged the production in 1962, marking its first-ever musical. The musical was revived 25 years later, and now the theater is celebrating 50 years of musicals with a third revival.
“It’s a musical we do every 25 years,” Keith Dixon said.
He’s the theater’s artistic director, as well as director of this show.
“It takes place during World War II, and its characters are those of the Greatest Generation,” Dixon said. “And in performing this musical, we are honoring them. Think about it. When we do this production again in 25 years, there won’t be anyone left from that generation.”
So many are already gone. Killebrew’s uncle died only a couple of years ago. Imagine what his reaction would have been to seeing his nephew portray one of the main characters in South Pacific.
“I was in the School of Music when I was a student at LSU, and he would come and hear whatever I was singing at the time,” Killebrew said. “It didn’t matter if it was classical or opera, he liked it.”
And he liked South Pacific, a musical slapped with a label of controversy when it opened on Broadway.
South Pacific deals with two consecutive love stories, one of them between a white lieutenant in the U.S. Marines and a local Asian girl named Liat.
“He meets and falls in love with a native girl, and he can’t reconcile it in his head that it’s OK for two people to fall in love,” Jason Dowies said.
Dowies plays the lovelorn Lt. Joseph Cable, whose confusion deals with questions of race. Quite a heavy topic for a 1940s musical, right? That topic was still controversial when Baton Rouge Little Theater performed South Pacific in 1962.
The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and tension was especially high in Baton Rouge, where the nation’s first bus boycott was staged in 1953, two years before the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.
“So, it took courage for the Little Theater to do this play at that time,” Dixon said. “It didn’t back down from the subject.”
“And that’s part of what the Little Theater has always been about,” Killebrew added.
Kevin Harger, sitting nearby, nodded.
On a Sunday afternoon, he, Killebrew, Dowies and Dana Todd Lux gathered in the theater for prerehearsal warm-ups. Harger plays Luther Billis, the guy who has lots of resources at his fingertips.
“He’s the clown,” Harger said. “He’s the guy who can get whatever you need, because he knows a guy who knows a guy, and he’s secretly in love with Nellie Forbush, but he knows she’s way out of his league.”
So, why is Ensign Nellie Forbush beyond Luther’s reach? Well, he has lots of vices, including chasing women. And Nellie is the kind of sweet-natured woman a man like Luther places on a high pedestal.
Lux plays the naive Navy nurse.
“Don’t let Dana tell you any differently — she is Nellie Forbush,” Dixon said, laughing.
Lux can’t hold back her own laughter. It’s true. She shares a lot of characteristics with Nellie.
“She’s from Little Rock, Ark., and I’m from Kentucky,” Lux said. “It’s not the same place, but there are a lot of similarities.”
And both have the same happy, hopeful disposition.
“She’s in love with Emile, but Emile is complex character,” Killebrew said. “He’s lived a life before he came to this island, and he’s already experienced a lot of life and understands what it is about. Those around him are experiencing it for the first time, and he can’t tell them about it, because he has to let them grow up. And that’s what frustrates him about Nellie, because she’s still learning about it.”
She’s learning about it during World War II while serving in the South Pacific, where author James A. Michener set his 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Tales of the South Pacific.
Hammerstein and Joshua Logan combined elements from several stories in Michener’s work when writing the script for South Pacific. Hammerstein later wrote the lyrics for Rogers’ music.
Then the epic musical was staged, telling the story of a group of American sailors and Navy nurses stationed in the South Pacific.
Nellie is the central character who quickly falls in love with the middle-aged Emile but struggles to accept his mixed race children. Then the second romance begins blossoming, this time between the Marine lieutenant and the young Asian woman.
The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most pointedly in the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
As the war against Japan escalates, reality sets in for both Nellie and Joseph, who struggle to reconcile their unconventional love affairs with their long-held prejudices and insecurities.
But not all the subjects are heavy.
“It has great dialogue, which is unusual for a musical,” Dixon said. “And it has comedy.”
Lots of comedy, as well as plenty of classic songs, including “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Happy Talk,” “Younger than Springtime,” “There’s Nothing Like a Dame” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.”
South Pacific won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1950, along with 10 Tony Awards. It also holds the distinction as the only musical production ever to have won all four Tony Awards for acting.
The stage production was adapted to a film in 1958 starring Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie.
Mary Martin played Nellie in the original Broadway production, and retired Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza was Emile.
“The songs for Emile are beautifully written in a key for a lower male part, which is unusual in a musical,” Killebrew said.
Again, this is Killebrew’s first time to perform in this musical. Harger and Lux also are new to it, but this is Dowies’ second time around as Joe Cable.
“I played Lt. Cable in Runnels’ production two years ago,” Dowies said. “It was directed by Ann Dalrymple.”
In some ways, the part is still fresh, yet it is different.
“I still know my lines, but they sound different,” Dowies said. “It took about a week to get that washed out of my head.”
He paused, then smiled. He couldn’t resist delivering the best line of the afternoon.
“I mean, it took about a week for me to get it washed out of my hair,” he said.
Of course, he was alluding to the show’s number, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” which generated a round of laughter, followed by a few good-natured jabs.
“I really like Joe Cable,” Dowies continued. “I like his focus, and I admire his commitment and loyalty.”
It’s the same commitment and loyalty founded in the Greatest Generation. The same commitment and loyalty reflected by Killebrew’s uncle. And now Killebrew has a chance to honor him through this performance.
- CAST: Dana Todd Lux, Nellie Forbush; Gerard Killebrew, Emile de Becque; Abby Robbins, Ngana; Tyler Robbins, Jerome; Ona Robbins, Bloody Mary; Claire Toney, Liat; Erin James, Bloody Mary’s Assistant; Kevin Harger, Luther Billis; Nicholas Moore, Stewpot; Josiah Bryan, Professor; Jason Dowies, Lt. Joseph Cable; Lee Allen, Capt. George Brackett; Bill Parker, Commander William Harbison; Tyler Grezaffi, Lt. Buzz Adams; Zac Thriffiley, Radio Operator Bob McCaffrey; Lindsey Short, Lead Nurse; Allison Gish, Dinah Murphy. Ensemble (nurses, sailors, islanders, other military personnel): Clara Bryan, Annie Dauzat, Katelyn Fassullo, Allison Gish, Shannon Harger, Erin James, Jamie Keller, Carole Moore, Emily Pears, Haley Schroeck, Lindsey Short, Melissa Simien, Hannah Williams, Josiah Bryan, Antonio Collins, Tyler Grezaffi, Michael Hicks, Lee Kelly, Nicholas Moore, Daylon Micha Othello, Travis Rohwer, Zac Thriffiley, Jeremy Whittemore.
- DIRECTOR: Keith Dixon.