Lyndy Franklin Smith and Jeromy Smith made big waves in the regional theater scene in July with the highly successful, toe-tapping debut of 42nd Street by the couple's new Lexington Theater Company. The couple is back at the helm, this time directing the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of the classic 1949 musical, South Pacific.
One thing's for sure: The duo know their way around a musical.
Thursday's opening night performance exuded a light, lithe sunniness with dark undercurrents of war and racism stirring beneath the tropical warmth of Michael Yeargan's island scenic design.
With music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, the musical is set during World War II on an island in the South Pacific and focuses on the romance between Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush (Jenna Day) and French plantation owner Emile de Becque (André Campelo), which is headed swiftly toward marriage until the Arkansas-born Forbush grapples with the discovery of Emile's children by a Polynesian woman, which she describes as "colored." Scenes alternate between Emile's private plantation and the rambunctious antics of sailors who try to abate their boredom and loneliness with humor. A second romance, between a young lieutenant (Michael Pandalfo) and a Tonkinese girl (Casey Shuler), explores another side of the interracial relationships, a controversial topic in the 1940s. While it's true there is far less stigma today surrounding couples of different racial or ethnic background, the topic seems as relevant as it was when South Pacific premiered. If Rodgers and Hammerstein were alive today, they'd probably be using the #loveislove hashtag, and the South Pacific classic You've Got to be Carefully Taught still comes up in discussions of racism today.
The production's strong vocal performances are no surprise. But what is surprising is the cast's emotional range as actors.
It's the little things, really, that elevate this production from grand to unexpectedly nuanced. Take Jenna Day's comedic timing in the playful I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair and her swift trajectory of humor, fear and joy.
Another example of how the production's attention to detail draws the audience into the emotional plight of its characters is the playfulness in scenes like The Thanksgiving Follies. The Smiths are not above going for sight gags that lend the show a retro, feel-good atmosphere. Nowhere is this more effective than when Christopher Kenney's wise-cracking Luther Billis closes The Thanksgiving Follies with a grass-skirt and coconut shell drag performance. Kenney's riotous dancing had the audience in stitches. It was one of my favorite parts of the show.
But the real star of the show is the chemistry between Day, a former Miss Kentucky, and Campelo. Even though they fall in love in almost an instant (which is just how it's done in South Pacific), it is totally believable to the audience thanks to the aforementioned emotive skills of the performers in soaring, elegant numbers like Twin Soliloquies and Some Enchanted Evening. Perhaps it's because we're looking through the lens of the past 70 years, but there is something about the simple authenticity and unquestioned solemnity of the kind of love portrayed by Rodgers and Hammerstein that is so refreshing to 21st century sensibilities. These characters do not grapple with first-world love problems. There is not debate about whether one has the qualities to fulfill the other, etc. In this world, love is a mysterious force not to be tampered with.