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Colorful ‘South Pacific’ production plays well in Mesa

A week into a musical show that runs through mid-April, The Palms dinner theatre’s South Pacific is highlighting contrasts in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s well-loved classic. Actors Debra Thais Evans, who plays the jolly, enterprising native Bloody Mary, and Andrew Van Allsburg in the role of Princeton-educated, idealistic, Lieutenant Joseph Cable visited in Mesa after the performance about how the World War II era show colors current day situations.

The cast of 'South Pacific' running through mid-April at Mesa's The Palms dinner theater, 2014
Prather Entertainment
Bloody Mary and Sailors of the Mesa Palms'  'South Pacific' cast, 3-14
Prather Entertainment

Most of us hum tunes like 'Some Enchanted Evening' and 'Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair' from this show, even if we don't know they originated on Broadway sixty years ago in an island love story that set racism as its central conflict. With Mesa's cast of raucously full-voiced, fun-loving sailors, it's easy to downplay.

"The audience loves that it's all cute on the surface, but the story behind it is dark and delves so much deeper," said Van Allsburg who is new to Prather Entertainment and South Pacific. “When we jump from the sort of dialed-down movie version to the stage, Lt. Cable and the show have more grit. It’s a more realistic display that shows the entirety of the racism.”

Cable and Bloody Mary's daughter are one of two couples torn between following their hearts or succumbing to long-standing prejudice. Fugitive Frenchman Emile deBeque (Brian Bowman) and US military nurse Nellie Forbrush (Paige Mattox) are the other.

"I saw the original revival of this show, and I gasped right during the production, 'Did she just say colored?!" recalled Evans, who is a delight on and off stage. “The word ‘colored’ is in the revival version of South Pacific (2008) that we're doing here in Mesa. Rodgers & Hammerstein just implied it in the original, but Nellie actually says the word that names what she can't handle in the update.”

In fact, it was Mattox's most honest moment as Nellie last night, arriving as Act One closed. In a bubbly, enthusiastic whirlwind, her character has fallen head over heels for a man that her family and friends already question. Their ages and backgrounds are too, too dissimilar. But when doe-eyed, Georgia-born Nellie suddenly understands that heart-throb Emile’s dark-pigmented children mean his past life had included interracial living on top of their many other differences, she can’t comprehend how her heart can be so full of love and so horrified in the same instant. That’s a lot of raw, scary emotion to expose to an audience. Mattox, however, rose to the occasion with surprising, genuine, perfect communication.

Prior to that scene, Bowman's deBeque had been both the show's strongest actor/musician and the emotional stronghold, with Nellie adding splashes of quirky bounce to his steady gait. With a Tom Hanks-like calming presence and a buttery baritone voice, his performance throughout the night epitomized the warmth and love that social tolerance breeds.

Evans' depiction of a minority trapped between dominating cultures shone, too. “I love Bloody Mary. I have my struggles with her, but so much about her, I love." Evans gushed about her jovial, optimistic character. "She is entrepreneurial. She is an amazing mother. We may question her methods, but she does it because she wants a better life for her child. She wants her child to be protected and safe.”

At the end of the evening, that's what her beautifully-executed, racially-tense 'Happy Talk,' number and Cable's truthfully robust 'You've Gotta Be Carefully Taught' artfully depicted: fierce human love can and does blend, with soothing strokes, any clashes or mismatches that society blindly concocts.

"Prejudice--between races or other minorities--is here...will always be here, but we can deal with it," concluded Evans. "You've gotta work for it. If we can stay together through the obstacles, love really does conquer all."

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