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Rodgers and Hammerstein classic ‘South Pacific’ closes pops series
Thursday, March 26, 2015

Rodgers and Hammerstein classic ‘South Pacific’ closes pops series

The cast of “South Pacific in Concert” includes, from left, Jackie Blasting (Ensign Nellie Forbush), Patrick Brett (Emile de Becque), Dominique Kempf (Bloody Mary) and Jon Christiano (Lt. Joseph Cable).

A concert version of one of the most popular works in the canon of Rodgers and Hammerstein will be presented as the 2015 Commencement Eve Pops concert.

“South Pacific in Concert” concludes the DFT Communications Pops Series on Friday, May 15 at 7:30 p.m. in King Concert Hall at Rockefeller Arts Center.

Set in an island paradise during World War II, “South Pacific” follows two parallel love stories that are threatened by the dangers of prejudice and war. Musical highlights include “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Younger Than Springtime.”

Rockefeller Arts Center Director Jefferson Westwood serves as producer and artistic director for the annual commencement eve pops concert. The musical director is Glen Cortese, conductor and artistic director of the Western New York Chamber Orchestra, and the stage director is Tom Loughlin, chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance. “Glen is a great musician and conductor. He understands the material very well,” Westwood said. “Tom is a very versatile director. He’s at home in everything from contemporary world premiere dramas to Shakespeare to musical comedy.”

As for “South Pacific,” Westwood said it is “second only to the ‘Sound of Music’” when it comes to popular Rodgers and Hammerstein works. He noted there is good reason for this. These days, it seems so many American musicals rely on special effects and all kinds of stage magic,” Westwood said. “‘South Pacific’ relies on wonderful music, a great story line, memorable characters and fabulous orchestration. It doesn’t need bells and whistles.”

While almost 70 years have past since “South Pacific” was written, its subject matter is still timely today. “This particular work makes a strong statement on race relations and prejudice that is still relevant today,” Westwood said of the love stories at the center of “South Pacific.”

Loughlin said the musical score has helped make “South Pacific” such an enduring work. “Many of the songs in ‘South Pacific’ are classic ballads that have few equals in the musical theatre canon,” Loughlin said. “‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and ‘Younger Than Springtime’ are two of the lushest and most romantic love songs ever written. The score keeps drawing you back to this musical.”

The pops production is based on the 2006 concert version that starred Alec Baldwin, Reba McEntire and Billy Stokes Mitchell. That production was staged at Carnegie Hall and aired nationally on PBS.

It is the second time the Commencement Eve Pops has featured a concert version of a popular musical, following the 2012 production of “Guys and Dolls in Concert.” “‘Guys and Dolls’ was a huge hit for us,” Westwood said. “It was a new direction for us and people loved it. We had many requests to do more productions like that.” As the concert version, the production features all the musical numbers from “South Pacific” in running order with the connecting dialogue that tells the story. However, there will be no scenery or props. In addition, the orchestra will be right on the stage, rather than in the orchestra pit. “There is a suggestion of costumes,” Westwood explained. “It’s enough so that the audience knows who the characters are.”

Loughlin noted staging a concert version is a unique challenge. “You have to find a balance between some interesting staging and acting, while working with singers with books in their hands,” he said. “I tend to lean a little bit more to minimal staging, choosing instead to put the focus on the music and the voices.”

The core of the creative team also includes Casey Gray as the vocal coach and rehearsal accompanist, Laurel Walford as the wardrobe head and Janie Villella as the choreographer. “Each of these collaborators is extremely talented,” Westwood said.

Backed by Western New York Chamber Orchestra, Fredonia’s most talented musical theater students will be in the spotlight. “We have a terrific cast,” Westwood said. The cast is made up of 22 students – six with principal roles and 16 in the ensemble. The principals are Jackie Blasting as Nellie, Patrick Brett as Emile, Jon Christiano as Cable, Dominique Kempf as Bloody Mary, Alex Kosmowski as Billis and Ilana Lieberman as Liat.

“A production like this offers more opportunities for students from the Department of Theatre and Dance and the School of Music to perform on stage,” Westwood said. And that’s something the local audience seems to appreciate, he noted. “There’s a real bond between our audience and the students,” Westwood said. “People tell me they just love seeing ‘our students’ on the stage.”

“South Pacific in Concert” is sponsored by DFT Communications and the Fredonia Penny Saver as part of the 2014-15 Lake Shore Savings Season.

Tickets are available through the Ticket Office in the Williams Center, by phone at 673-3501 and online.

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