Marina del Rey Symphony stages a free al fresco “South Pacific”

By Brian Marks

Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals, gets a rare full-orchestra production at Burton Chace Park

There’s nothing more appropriate for the island love tale of “South Pacific” than to perform it on the shores of the actual Pacific, which is exactly what the Marina del Rey Symphony and a talented group of actors and singers will do this Thursday and Saturday during a free and fully-staged production of the musical in Burton Chace Park.

There’s a good chance you already know Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” whether through its stage version (one of the longest-running Broadway musicals of all time), the critically-maligned 1958 film, or through its enduring songs, which quickly joined the ranks of popular standards following the musical’s 1949 debut.

The story is simple enough: a tale of two couples clinging to the oasis of an unnamed island in the South Pacific away from the devastation of World War II.

As American service members wait for their next conflict with Japanese forces, Nellie Forbush, a Navy nurse from Arkansas, begins to fall for Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner living on the island. Unfortunately she bears the prejudices of her upbringing, and Emile’s children from a previous marriage to a now-deceased Polynesian woman arouse racist fears that threaten to scuttle their romance. Meanwhile, Marine Lt. Joseph Cable finds himself attracted to a young Polynesian woman named Liat, but their courtship is cut short when he’s given a new mission.

The show’s most popular song, “Some Enchanted Evening,” is being sung in the Marina del Rey production by Zeffin Quinn Hollis, who plays de Becque and also directs the production. Hollis is a multitalented performer, an opera singer who also regularly acts and directs.

Previously, the Marina del Rey Symphony exclusively performed operas as its season finale (all directed by Hollis), but “South Pacific” will be the organization’s first musical. This year’s production required extensive negotiations with Actors’ Equity, the union representing stage actors, but the new conditions allowed for a second performance date — a first for the Marina del Rey Concert Series.

Hollis can barely contain his excitement about this year’s show.

“It’s just the best and most incredible music ever,” he raves. “I always joke that I’m dead inside, but I’ve been in these rehearsals and just giggled and cried and screamed because these actors are the most amazing singers and actors I’ve ever worked with. One of the highlights of my life.”

The show’s cast is rounded out by Madison Claire Parks (Nellie Forbush), Devin Archer (Cable), Miyuki Miyagi (Liat), and MaryAnn Hu as Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese trader and Liat’s mother. Hu, a late addition to the cast, is a native Angeleno who lives in Marina del Rey. She has previously portrayed Bloody Mary in multiple productions, and was featured in the critically acclaimed Broadway production of “Sunday in the Park with George” that starred Jake Gyllenhaal.

Part of the thrill of seeing a classic American musical like “South Pacific” with the Marina del Rey Symphony is hearing it performed with a full-size orchestra. It’s far more common for contemporary productions to use significantly diminished orchestrations to save money, sometimes under the guise of a new artistic direction. But anyone who has seen a George Gershwin musical performed with only a handful of musicians, or a Stephen Sondheim show with a single anemic piano, knows that bigger is often better.

“When these musicals were originally conceived in the ’40s and ’50s, they used large orchestras,” says Marina del Rey Symphony Music Director Frank Fetta. “Many people have told me how happy they are that we’re doing ‘South Pacific’ with a large orchestra. So often it’s done with a synthesizer and a cello here and a clarinet there, and you don’t get the grandeur of the score. This [production] harkens back to the way the composers originally intended these musicals to be done.”

Seeing a classic American musical is usually a treat, but the Marina del Rey Symphony’s free production makes it especially hard to pass up the opportunity.

“This is super high level and free,
so take the plunge,” says Hollis. “You can’t normally experience high level entertainment like this while you’re having a lobster roll from a food truck and just enjoying yourself. If it’s not your cup of tea, just go. It’s not like the Ahmanson, where you’ve paid $165 for a ticket and you’d feel embarrassed to leave. It’s the perfect thing to take a risk on.”

“South Pacific” begins at 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday (Aug.23 and 25) at Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Free. Visit beaches.lacounty.gov for more information.

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