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Prejudice Set to Music

South Pacific will explore serious issues as it spins its much-loved melodies

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"First touch your heart with your hands, then EXTEND THEM TO HIM while bending your knees and tilting your head to the side and towards him." Those are the words of director Terri Kent, as she instructs the lovely Tonkinese lass Liat in a flirtatious scene with Lieutenant Joe (McDreamy) Cable in a rehearsal for South Pacific.

It is a week before the June 13 opening night at Porthouse Theatre, and Kent and choreographer MaryAnn Black are polishing small moments. If only we all had Kent to organize our physical gestures during amorous interactions, things might turn out better.

As Kent says, "Getting the small beats right makes all the difference between a good show and a great one. In this musical, the story is told in the book and not as much in the music and lyrics, so we have to make sure the relationships ring true."

Of course, that's a significant challenge when dealing with such an iconic show and having only 2½ weeks to rehearse. So there is no time wasted as the cast gathers at the appointed times in the Wright-Curtis Theatre on the Kent State University campus to run small snatches of the show and refine their performances.

Although the selection of South Pacific for this summer season was almost accidental, due to another show not being available, the Rogers and Hammerstein epic appeals to Kent for several reasons.

"I've fallen in love with the show," she says, " because it deals so directly with prejudice and race issues. While many people adore this musical because of the wonderful songs, there are two story lines that explore racial conflicts.

"Both Nellie Forbush (Kayce Cummings) and Lt. Cable (Jake Wood) have to confront their own latent prejudices. We have had long talks with the cast about bigotry, and about how we would represent it in our production."

While audiences may perceive a well-known show such as South Pacific (it opened on Broadway in 1949) as a finished and unchanging entity, nothing could be further from the truth.

As Kent explains, "They played it light back when it opened, since the war was so fresh in people's minds. But in the 2008 revival at Lincoln Center, the production was much darker, reflecting the mood and the attitudes at the time."

And since the bulk of the cast is comprised of young performers, these talks are necessary to enable them to plug into the mindset of a different era.

However, there is another reason Kent is affected by South Pacific. She and her husband, actor and acting teacher Rohn Thomas, adopted Kaishawn Thomas, who plays Liat in this production, when she was four years old. "Since Kaishawn is African-American, we have dealt with issues of race and prejudice for 14 years. So the themes of this show hit home in personal ways."

That said, South Pacific is a memorable song-fest unlike any other, featuring a stellar lineup of tunes such as "Some Enchanted Evening," "Younger Than Springtime," "Bali Ha'i," "Cockeyed Optimist," and "There Is Nothing Like a Dame."

As choreographer Black says, "This is an old-fashioned big musical, and the movements are very athletic. Even with just two pianos as accompaniment, the effect is powerful."

The young cast is bolstered by two veteran performers in the lead roles, Cummings and Greg Violand who plays her love interest, the suave French planter Emile de Becque.

But the essence of the show is the serious theme underneath. "I believe South Pacific can and should be a transformational piece, able to change minds or at least encourage people to think about their attitudes," says Kent. "And that's always a good thing."

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