The cast of Camelot Theatre's 'South Pacific.' Photo by Steve Sutfin/Brian O'Connor

Camelot Theatre stages Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'South Pacific'

The musical "South Pacific" has popular Broadway numbers, comedy and island romance — but also a heartfelt message about the damaging effects of racism and prejudice.

The now-classic Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical premiered in 1949, long before the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

A spunky nurse named Nellie is stationed on a Pacific island during World War II and finds herself falling in love with Emile, a French planter living there. The budding romance is threatened when Nellie — who grew up in the American South — discovers Emile fathered children with a Polynesian woman who later passed away.

"There is so much hate and anger surfacing in our time period, and in this show Nellie is faced with the realization that she was raised with viewpoints she doesn't like," says Stephanie Jones, who portrays Nellie in Camelot Theatre's new production of the musical.

Jones says Nellie's feelings for Emile push her to look inside her own heart and begin a journey of learning about deeper love and acceptance.

"South Pacific" opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent. The musical runs through Jan. 8, with Tuesday through Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $36 and are available by calling 541-535-5250 or online at.camelottheatre.org. Any remaining tickets will be sold for $18 at 10 minutes before curtain time.

Rodgers and Hammerstein drew from James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 book "Tales of the South Pacific" to pen their musical, with Rodgers composing the music and Hammerstein writing the lyrics. Michener based his fictional work on real stories he gathered while serving on islands in the south Pacific during WWII.

Like the book, the musical is told against the backdrop of Allied forces struggling to capture islands from the Axis powers.

"The characters involved come from different places in the United States," says director Daniel Stephens. "They may never have been out of their home town or state. They've been shipped thousands of miles across the ocean to an island. They experience people from different parts of the country and different parts of the world."

Far from home, the characters begin to examine their belief systems and must figure out which values are worth preserving and which should be discarded.

For Nellie, that means deciding whether she will continue her romance with Emile — and figuring out whether she can also love his children.

Other characters are facing their own conflicts.

Lt. Joe Cable is falling for a young Vietnamese woman, Liat, but knows his family would never accept their marriage. He describes how his prejudiced views were ingrained at a young age, singing, "You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You've got to be carefully taught!"

The frank song "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" — and the musical as a whole — were controversial from the beginning.

A group of New Englanders asked Michener to urge Rogers and Hammerstein to remove the song, although Michener refused.

The musical faced even stiffer opposition in the Deep South, where two Georgia senators claimed the song "contained an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow" and vowed to introduce legislation to outlaw supposedly communist-inspired works.

The controversy didn't stop the musical from becoming a hit. "South Pacific" is now considered to be one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time, according to Camelot Theatre.

Despite its serious themes, the musical is uplifting, focusing on people's bravery and ability to change.

"The message of 'South Pacific' is racism is not acceptable, and you can learn to not be a racist — just as you learned to be a racist," says Don Matthews, who plays the French planter Emile.

It's theme of romance under difficult circumstances is timeless.

Matthews says his favorite song in the musical is "Some Enchanted Evening," which tells of strangers experiencing love at first sight across a crowded room.

"It's a great and wonderful song to fall in love with — and that's exactly how it's used in the production," says Matthews.

For Jones, "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" is her favorite. As her character Nellie learns how to stand on her own, she is joined by other nurses in a high-energy choreographed dance.

Jones says the important message of the play is enhanced by the musical numbers.

"As story tellers, we love to bring happiness through song and dance to our community," she says. "But bringing truth to a story is so beautiful, and without the counterpart of some ugliness we find within humanity, the joyful parts wouldn't be as wonderful."

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