When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's "South Pacific" opened on the stage of New York City's Majestic Theatre in 1949, crowds and critics instantly embraced it.
Its songs, drenched in American optimism absolutely faithful to the time, struck a deep chord with audiences. Its book and direction captured the moral complexities of a nation working through its own racial prejudices while recovering from a bloody war still fresh in its memory.
And its protagonists, the plucky Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and impossibly suave French plantation owner Emile de Becque, were immediately recognizable as fallible creatures searching for love in harsh surroundings.
This material -- so firmly rooted in its particular time, place and style -- might seem to be the perfect candidate for the musical theater museum. In the decades since, the language of musicals evolved beyond the formal qualities of Rodgers and Hammerstein's work. The soaring, straight-ahead melodies of old have fractured into a hundred divergent streams: the dissonance of Stephen Sondheim, the campy irreverence of Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, even the commercial post-punk of Green Day.
Despite all that, "South Pacific" has endured -- and not merely as an instructive throwback or a nostalgic treat for older crowds. It is a piece of theater every bit as relevant and emotionally affecting today as it was more than 60 years ago.
On Tuesday, a touring version of the widely hailed 2008 revival of the musical at New York City's Lincoln Center comes to Shea's Performing Arts Center for a six-day run. That production, originally directed by Bartlett Sher, produced the same sky-high levels of praise as the musical's 1949 debut.
Joe Langworth, a Geneseo State College grad, served as associate choreographer for the original production and retooled its musical staging for the tour. For him, the show's continued popularity comes from the truth and quality of the story itself.
The musical, based on James A. Michener's 1947 book of short stories "Tales of the South Pacific," centers on a rocky love affair between the nurse and the plantation owner with mixed-race children from a previous marriage. Nellie and Emile's complicated courtship, which brings up issues of prejudice that continue to echo through American society, plays out against the backdrop of the ongoing war in the Pacific.
The Lincoln Center production, Langworth said, succeeded by remaining utterly faithful to the original material.
"More than anything there was an acknowledgment and an awareness of historical accuracy. There were separate quarters for black and white servicemen, which is why we made a point of keeping them in their own space upstage. It's something that was prevalent at the time, and it's also the theme of our play," he said. "We choose to focus on racism as part of our country's history and speak to it and hopefully put it forward in the evening so we can reflect on it and look at how far we've come and how far we need to go."
The tour itself is a faithful if somewhat scaled-down version of the successful 2008 staging, Langworth said.
"It really honors the Lincoln Center production, and we always, always had that in mind because it was such a successful collaboration and such clear storytelling," Langworth said. "These are the characters that were historically in place at the time."
Langworth revamped the show's choreography to work on a proscenium stage as opposed to Lincoln Center's thrust, which was surrounded by the audience on three sides. The new staging, Langworth said, had to portray the "vastness of the island on a smaller scale, on a smaller playing space. That was what we had to contend with for the touring production, but I don't think we lose anything in the translation."
"We always wanted everyone to look like they were moving out of the emotion that they were having at the time and we never wanted to take the audience out of the story by all of a sudden seeing a bunch of sailors doing fancy-dancing, for lack of a better term."
> Becoming Nellie
The tour stars Marcello Guzzo, an opera singer from Ecuador, as Emile and the Chicago-based actress Jennie Sophia as Nellie in her first national tour. (The 2008 revival also starred an opera singer, Brazilian baritone Paolo Szot.)
Sophia, who spoke to The News just after stepping off the "South Pacific" tour bus in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said her understanding of Nellie Forbush has evolved significantly over the years.
As a girl, Sophia said, "I just remember falling in love with Nellie and her optimism and 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,' and she gets to be with the man of her dreams. I saw the effects of the war and how that was a challenge for her, but I didn't necessarily see or understand the effects of the prejudices that drove [Nellie and Emile] apart."
Later, she said, she came to understand how Nellie's passion and ambition for life was challenged by "the dark places in her own heart."
"My eyes were opened to the depth of her character rather than just the beautiful essence of her character that I saw when I was little," she said. "It requires a great amount of courage to be who Nellie is and I think I've grown in appreciation for who she is. It's even challenged me in my own personal life to realize, wow, these things you stand for."
As for her co-star, Sophia said, her chemistry with Guzzo is spot-on, not least because the communication issues built into the roles of Nellie and Emile also exist between the Ecuadorean singer and his American counterpart. The fact that Sophia also has plenty of classical training under her belt in addition to her musical theater experience, is icing on the cake.
Sophia's voice, Langworth said, "speaks so naturally to that era, and she handles the music beautifully, but she is also so charming and engaging. She's one of those actresses that just makes you move forward in your seat."
Just one more reason Langworth IS confident that "South Pacific" will continue to endure.
"It's all rooted in truth, everything," Langworth said. "And the strength of the material, when you really pay attention to it, carries the evening."
"South Pacific" opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. and runs through next Sunday. Tickets are $32.50 to $67.50. For more information, go to 837-1410 or www.sheas.org.