April 24, 2003
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Some enchanted evenings begin tonight in YSHS’s ‘South Pacific’

Photo by Lauren Heaton
Tech crew member Lydia Gerthoffer sets the lights in preparation for ‘South Pacific.’

Persistent chills and the dark spring rains may prompt villagers to seek harbor in a sunnier, more tropical place like, for instance, the South Pacific. It’s closer than it seems, and theater goers can get there this weekend when Yellow Springs High School students open one of their biggest spring musical productions, South Pacific, at the Antioch Theater. But be careful, there’s a war going on in there, and it’s more real than it seems.

The production takes place tonight through Saturday, April 24 through 26, and May 1 through 3, at 8 p.m., and Sundays, April 27 and May 4, at 2 p.m.

The floor-to-ceiling tropic backdrop under the warm yellow stage lights immediately transports viewers to an Asian island, where an American Navy outfit is stationed during the Second World War. James Hyde plays an astonishingly straight backed Commander Bill Harbison and Matthew Zaremsky’s piercing voice drills out orders as Captain George Brackett. The soldiers marching around in combat boots and fatigues bear an eerie resemblance to real service men and women of the same age who were fighting wars then and who still fight wars today.

But as with most Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, a plagued love intrigue takes a parallel spotlight upstage of the political big picture. In this case, it’s two love stories.

Nellie Forbush, played by a very animated Jennifer Gordon, is a Navy nurse who falls in love with a French planter, Emile de Becque, played by Owen Wolfe with a French accent. Another love blossoms when the servicemen are taken to the island of Bali Ha’i and Lieutenant Joseph Cable, played by Martin Bakari, meets a young Polynesian girl named Liat, played by Anna Forster, and they too swoon sweetly over each other.

High school theater director Marcia Nowik chose this musical, which includes 40 singing and dancing young performers, because of its pertinence to the current political conflicts between the U.S. and the Middle East, she said.

In the original version, Cable is uncomfortable with Liat’s racial heritage, and Nellie is afraid to raise de Becque’s two Polynesian children because they are different. South Pacific, which debuted in 1949, was one of the first musicals to address such issues, Nowik said.

In the upcoming performance, Nowik decided to heighten the issues of discrimination beyond race to the realm of religion. The cross dangling from Cable’s neck throughout the show holds portent when offset by the bronze Buddhas nestled back into the palm trees of Bali Ha’i, where Liat lives. Cable eventually finds he and Liat are incompatible because of their differences.

Photo by Lauren Heaton
Director Marcia Nowik and YSHS student Rose Byrnes create the ‘South Pacific’ set.

Hidden behind the tropical scene and not in a pit, the high school theater’s first 27-member pit orchestra creates an immediacy to the familiar show. Though they can’t see the performers on stage, the group of student and adult musicians manage to come in on audio cue and provide a musical backdrop much like the painted sheet that hides them.

High school orchestra conductor Yvonne Wingard has directed pit orchestras at every other high school where she has taught music, and finally now musicians can be part of the theater in Yellow Springs as well, she said after a late rehearsal Monday night.

“It’s great for musicians who love to be part of the theater, they know the lines, they know the music, but they don’t have to be on stage,” she said.

The students like the new setup as well. Chorus member Jessie Northridge said she liked the fuller sound of the orchestra and the give-and-take between musician and performer.

“It’s easy to follow them and it sounds nicer because they follow us and we follow them.”

The show is Wolfe’s first experience in a musical, and he said he never realized until this spring how much time and effort the musicians in particular put into the production.

The orchestra organized just in time to accompany what both Nowik and Wingard called “fabulous voices” in this year’s cast.

“Martin Bakari’s ‘Younger Than Springtime’ just breaks your heart wide open,” Nowik said.

She was able to find students whose inner register matches each character’s vocal range to highlight each person’s strengths, she said. She couldn’t find words for the vocal talent of Jennifer Gordon, who is performing her first musical.

“This girl is incredible,” Nowik said. “And I hate it when they wait until they’re seniors.”

For high school and McKinney School teachers who like to witness the other talents of their students, the theater team has come up with a commemorative tribute. Teachers are invited to come to the show, where they will be gifted with a complimentary ticket for a front row seat, a flower lei, a complimentary concession snack, and a dedication at the end of the show.

Parents, too, have provided integral support for the production, from bringing dinners for the entire cast and crew during the last week of rehearsals, to helping build the set, to sitting through rehearsals for added adult supervision. Community businesses have donated a lot too, Nowik said. Current Cuisine and The Winds each catered a dinner for the students, and Young’s Jersey Dairy catered the Easter feast. Pangaea lent the troupe a large bronze Buddha figure as a prop.

The three- to four-month long cooperative effort of the disparate group of students and community members that make the spring musical happen every year is not always evident in the production itself. But the performance promises to be something to see, and the reasons go way beyond opening night.

Tickets may be reserved by calling 767-9280.

—Lauren Heaton