Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Interview with Director Ray Kennedy: South Pacific
One of the classic musicals of Broadway's Golden Age is opening this weekend at Thalian Hall in Wilmington, North Carolina: Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, presented by Opera House Theatre Company under the direction of Ray Kennedy. I recently asked Mr. Kennedy about why he was so attracted to directing this pinnacle musical and why South Pacific is such an important piece of theater.
Garrett Southerland: This musical has a long and rich history; what has it meant to you, both in the past and now?
Ray Kennedy: I have always loved South Pacific. As a child, I remember hearing "Some Enchanted Evening" on an album of my mother's and, even to young ears, I knew this was a great song. Once I heard the entire score, I loved all the music, every song. Who cannot hum the tune of "Bali Hai?" It is just a masterpiece.
Garrett Southerland: How do you think this musical has evolved over the years?
RK: I think history has shown us how bold and progressive Rodgers and Hammerstein were in confronting racism so forcefully in 1948. And in today's world, it is important to continue to understand it still exists and, while the world has evolved in a positive way, we are far from finished with this discussion.
GS: You've said that South Pacific has been on your wish list for a long time; how does it feel to finally direct it?
RK: It has really been illuminating. The show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950, so the script is deep and complex. Directing and really getting inside the story and the amazing lyrics has been exciting. As a director and choreographer, I have to balance the light entertaining moments with the very emotional and sometimes tough moments in the show.
GS: Tell us about the research you did to prepare for this show.
RK: I read a lot. I do a lot of research when I direct, and since I work for a nonprofit that supports the military, I wanted to make sure everything was exactly right. Luckily, our costume designer, Debbie Scheu, is a military spouse, and her husband is a naval academy graduate, so I know every patch and costume is correct for the forties. Also, I read a lot about Little Rock, Arkansas, where the character Nellie Forbush is from, to understand her world. I have never bought into the idea that Nellie was a "hick." She may call herself that, but she is a woman who is a graduate of nursing school in 1942. There was only one school in the state of Arkansas that graduated women in nursing in the early forties. And she enlisted to be a nurse; women were not drafted. So our Nellie is quite a complex young woman, which makes for an interesting arc for her in the show.
GS: This show is one of the earliest examples of musical theatre confronting the topic of racism; how are you thinking about that in the present day, when that topic still resonates very strongly?
RK: Good question. It has really been something that has bothered me. I read about the Muslim ban, the Black Lives Matter movement, and people across America who feel left out, and it saddens me that the conversation is still going on. But I have decided there is no better time to look at South Pacific than right now.
GS: What was your process casting this show? Tell us about the actors you've found.
RK: Thalian Hall Opera House has a huge audition in the spring to cast four musicals we do from June to September. We saw over 150 actors in two days. I am very lucky in that Wilmington has a mix of actors who are talented, tried and true, as well as people who walk through the door you have never seen before. South Pacific is a mix of both! Kendra Goehring-Garrett and I have worked together on many shows, and it is interesting: she has played the leads in Oklahoma!, Carousel, and now South Pacific for me. I think the character of Nellie may be her best role to date. Robin Dale Robertson is playing the character of Emile, however, we have not worked together often, so this has been a new experience. Our Bloody Mary, Mirla Criste, is just wonderful. She grew up as a child backstage on the road with South Pacific as her mother was playing Bloody Mary. She brought a fine sense of realism as well as comedy to the character. And our Lt. Cable, John Callison, is a professional opera singer from New York, who happens to have Wilmington roots.
GS: Do you have a favorite scene or number in this production? What makes it special for you?
RK: After all this talk about the weighty story line of South Pacific, you may be surprised that I love "Honey Bun" the best. It is a great song with wonderful style. The way it is presented in the "Thanksgiving Follies" is so pure and innocent in a way; it is a great moment. We have a great Billis, Jason Aycock, in that number, who also happens to be the assistant director/choreographer.
GS: Great theatre entertains the audience and gives us something to think about; is there something new for a seasoned musical theater fan to find in South Pacific?
RK: The music. I think it is one of the best scores ever written and the story makes you think as you leave the theater.
GS: You've enjoyed a long relationship with Thalian Hall in Wilmington; what keeps you coming back?
RK: Two things. First, the talent both off stage and on. I work so well with Alice Sherwood, the producer, and a team of talented costume, set, sound and lighting designers. I also have a long history with the musical director, Lorene Walsh. We all speak the same language, and it is always a collaborative process. And Thalian Hall itself. When I moved back to New York seven years ago, I just missed Thalian Hall. So Opera House Theatre Company figured out a way I could direct and live in New York City. Thalian Hall is a magnificent theater built in 1858. It is a joy to work on that stage. Tony Rivenbark, the executive director of Thalian Hall, balances keeping the historic integrity of the space but at the same time making technical improvements that make making magic easier.
GS: Now that you've crossed South Pacific off your list, what other shows are you hoping to do?
RK: My bucket list is dwindling, but that is a good thing, right? Still lurking out there, I hope, are productions of Sunset Boulevard, Passion, revisiting Nine again (my favorite musical), and, don't laugh, Mamma Mia!.