Every actor has a dream role, said Jessica Lauren Ball. Hers is Nellie Forbush, the affable nurse whose love for a wonderful guy is almost undone by her prejudices, in the musical “South Pacific.”
“It’s been at the top of my list,” Ball said. “I love Rodgers and Hammerstein in general, and this is a wonderful show.”
Rodgers wrote the music, and Hammerstein, the lyrics. Hammerstein co-wrote the book, with Joshua Logan.
Even when she was in high school, Ball’s friends kept telling her she’d make “an amazing Nellie Forbush.” Ball agreed she is energetic and a “cockeyed optimist,” as the character Forbush describes herself.
So, “excited” is an understatement of how she felt, said Ball, when director Alan Muraoka cast her in the role for Olney Theatre Center’s production of the 1949 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, which opens the theater’s 2018-2019 season.
Set in the South Pacific during World War II, the musical concerns two sets of unlikely lovers. In addition to many songs that have become standards – such as “Some Enchanted Evening” – “South Pacific” includes biting commentary about racism and prejudice, which undo one of those relationships and almost derails the other.
Ball had only one misgiving: She was having “trouble connecting with the racism” of Forbush, an otherwise lovely, warm woman, who pulls back from a romance with Emile de Becque, a French planter, upon discovering he had two mixed-race children with a Polynesian woman.
The show’s powerful statement against racism, in addition to its plot and songs, drew Muraoka. Initially, when Jason Loewith, Olney’s artistic director, asked him to direct – he had previously staged “Once on This Island” there – Muraoka thought since this was “an old show, a classic, there’s always a part of me [that wants] to make it relevant.”
Halfway through the script, he realized “South Pacific” didn’t need any “modernization or new take. And the show is absolutely necessary at this time.”
“South Pacific” was the “Hamilton” of its day – running for more than 1900 performances, with tickets extremely hard to get.
If audiences and critics were enthusiastic, the producers were less so. They tried to get the show’s creators to tone down the message. Rodgers and Hammerstein agreed to remove some of the more-blatant lines condemning racism but were adamant that the song “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” hallmark of that message, remain.
The Lincoln Center production of “South Pacific” in 2010 restored some those cuts. Olney is using that script.
William Michals, a veteran of that production, is returning to his role of de Becque at Olney.
“When he sang at auditions, he gave me the chills,” laughed Ball.
Muraoka did look at the show’s theme of racism, along with those of sexism and Orientalism, with a “20th-century eye.”
When then the sailors proclaim` “There is Nothing Like a Dame” in one of the show’s humorous songs, they’re singing in front of women officers who outrank them, he pointed out.
He disagreed with the common portrayal of Bloody Mary, mother of Liat, whom Marine Officer Lt. Cable falls in love with, as a one-note money grubber. “She loves her daughter, and wants to ensure her future,” Muraoka said. “I also wanted to show that Liat has intelligence and value. She’s not just a beautiful plaything.”
In refocusing these nuances, he didn’t change one line, he said.
Muraoka, incidentally, is known to TV audiences as Alan on “Sesame Street” – a role he is playing for the 20th year.
Alex Prakken plays Cable, Alexandra Palting plays Liat, and Cheryl J. Campo portrays Bloody Mary.
Darren Lee choreographed, while Kristen Lee Rosenfeld serves as music director.
“South Pacific” runs Aug. 31-Oct. 7, at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney. For more information, visit www.olneytheatre.org.