Friday, March 5, 2021

South Pacific comes to the Chesapeake Bay


CAMBRIDGE, Md. (March 11) — On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the senior class at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School performed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a World War II show about love on a tropical island between an American nurse and a French expatriate who owns a local plantation and has two mixed-race children, whom the nurse struggles to accept.

So yes, Broadway has been sending messages about racism for a long time, as this is one of the oldest musicals that still gets the occasional performance on a high school stage.

As for that performance, we were treated to enthusiasm from a huge cast, led by Nellie (Sarah Gilbertsen) and Emile (Sam Glessner), whose acting was stifled a little by stage blocking that left them taking unnaturally short steps on too many occasions. But once they opened their mouths in song, we could feel the love through their hesitation and through their insistence, a love that encountered more than a few obstacles, including war and racism, on its path to fulfillment and everlasting happiness.

Compared to productions at other high schools across America, the singing here fell short in that pitch problems plagued the ensemble, who were mostly playing soldiers and crew members, as well as the leads. Their characters, let’s say, reflected more the reality of war and racism than the training of an aloof opera star.

Anyway, South Pacific is more a play with a few songs than a musical. To illustrate my point, consider a review in the New York Daily Mirror, written in the 1940s, when the musical won 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical: “Programmed as a musical play, South Pacific is just that. It boasts no ballets and no hot hoofing. It has no chorus in the conventional sense. Every one in it plays a part. It is likely to establish a new trend in musicals.”

That’s not to say that other productions haven’t featured great voices. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times praised bass Ezio Pinza, who originally played Emile: “Mr. Pinza’s bass voice is the most beautiful that has been heard on a Broadway stage for an eon or two. He sings … with infinite delicacy of feeling and loveliness of tone.”

It’s just to say that the message delivered in the acting of the players, conceived a decade and a half before the Civil Rights Movement got going in the US, supersedes any attention we might pay to the intonation of the actors on the stage or the musicians in the pit.

Schools put on musicals as part of fine arts programming, and they play a role in students’ education not only by engaging the community in important messages of our time but also in enlisting the participation of, sometimes, more than a hundred students in the cast or crew. Take the production of Seussical the Musical at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Maryland, which also closed this weekend.

A display near the theater for Seussical at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Maryland, shows the cast and crew for the musical
A display near the theater at Wilde Lake HS shows the cast and crew for Seussical (Voxitatis)

I wrote about how art can carry important social messages as I reviewed a production in December at Elk Grove High School in Illinois. They performed the junior version of Seussical while Wilde Lake performed the full Broadway version, but both carried the same message:

Better to be proactive and tell 5-year-olds a story about small people who live on a speck. Take one mom, sitting in front of me at Elk Grove High School’s production. … She brought her 5-year-old daughter, who is white, and her daughter’s friend, who is black or biracial. The lights dim a few times to give patrons a chance to get to their seats. The two girls look at each other and then at mom, and she tells them what that’s all about. … “Oh, the thinks you can think,” sings the Cat in the Hat, and these two girls in front of me start grooving, dancing in their seats, practically from the first downbeat. From that moment, our eyes, ears, and hearts were a captive audience, and performers never let go. If you can capture the undivided attention of two 5-year-olds, well, I don’t know what else you can ask.

See, 5-year-olds don’t care about intonation, at least not with Seussical, which is a real toe-tapper, to be sure. At Wilde Lake, the musical played to a sold-out house in the Jim Rouse Theatre, which is located inside the high school but run by an outside entity.

And the 5-year-olds and everybody else got exactly what they came for. In particular, JoJo (Efe Unuigbe) had such a hopeful look in his eyes as he sought “one true friend in the universe who believes in me” that even though he lives on a speck and nobody, except maybe Horton or Gertrude, even believes he exists, the underlying innocence and goodness the child in all of us has is reason to keep thinking about the possibility of worldwide harmony.

Wilde Lake took the unusual step of performing two musicals this school year, having done You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown this fall. According to a history of shows produced at the high school since 1990, the fall play isn’t usually a musical.

In January, Wilde Lake hosted a youth town hall in partnership with the school system, Howard County’s Department of Community Resources and Services, and the Howard County Association of Student Councils. Coordinated by Voices for Change Youth Coalition and HCASC, the town hall, which was part of Howard County Executive Allan H Kittleman’s #OneHoward initiative, brought together students in grades 8–12 to seek community change by identifying and prioritizing their needs and developing an action plan through a facilitated conversation.

“In a few short years, these students will be our leaders, so we need to listen to their ideas,” Mr Kittleman was quoted as saying in a statement. “This event will provide them a forum to share their vision for the future.”

Then, V4C and HCASC were expected to share the thoughts and ideas from that event with community leaders from county government and the school board. Parents and guardians participated in a facilitated concurrent Parent Workshop. And this weekend, the school brought those messages to the stage. The voice of youth takes many forms, including speech, writing, and, without question, song.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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