By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — South Pacific is a musical about love set against a backdrop of war.
People who normally would not meet — from different cultures, different classes — are brought together. Emotional connections are fast and intense as the risk of death hovers.
The play features two romances, each threatened by prejudice.
“There will always be racism in the world,” said Michael Janower, a Guilderland High School senior, who plays the male lead, explaining how the World War II-era play is relevant today. “It’s important to show how people are the same.”
With quiet reserve and a stunning voice, Janower plays the part of Émile de Becque, a worldly Frenchman in his forties who has a plantation in the South Pacific. He is raising his two charming young children whose Polynesian mother has died.
De Becque falls in love with a young Navy nurse, Nellie Forbush, a self-described hick from Little Rock, Ark., stationed on the island. She is played with verve by Casie Girvin.
When Girvin sings of her newfound love, she glows.
There is a true-life love story behind the staged play.
Girvin says she and Janower have been best friends since they were in the fourth grade and are now a couple. When they were in the sixth grade, they took a trip to New York City with their chorus and saw a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic South Pacific on Broadway.
Both of them say they have loved the show since that moment.
They each study classical voice privately with Guilderland music teacher, Rae Jean Teeter, the show’s music director. When they were auditioning, Girvin said, Teeter didn’t know they were dating. “Wow, you guys have really good chemistry,” Girvin recalled Teeter saying.
“When the cast list went up,” said Girvin, “I had to find out for myself.” She left class and found her name next to Janower’s for the lead roles.
“I started crying,” she said.
Both of them are planning careers in music. Janower will be at Temple University in Philadelphia next year for vocal performance. Girvin will study vocal performance, too, either at The Boston Conservancy or the Boyer College of Music and Dance, also at Temple.
“It’s always been one of my favorite shows,” said Janower of South Pacific. “I got a dream role.”
Janower comes from a musical family. His father, David Griggs-Janower, is the founder of Albany Pro Musica. Griggs-Janower suffered a stroke on Friday in the midst of surgery, and his son was on stage at dress rehearsal Saturday, every inch the professional.
The board of directors for Pro Musica met on Monday night and decided to proceed with the choral group’s weekend shows. (See related story.)
The Pro Musica concert, “If Music Be the Food of Love,” has songs inspired by love, including many of Griggs-Janower’s favorite love songs.
“David has given this great gift of music to the Capital Region,” said Jennifer Amstutz, president of Pro Musica, “and we honor him with this concert. We know he’d want us to go forward with it.”
Similarly, she said of Michael Janower continuing in his role with South Pacific, “Mikey feels like that’s his father’s legacy.”
Love and hate
The second on-stage love story in South Pacific is between Lieutenant Joseph Cable, played by Joseph Sipzner, and Liat, played by Eliana Rowe. The romance is borne out of a mother’s love for her daughter.
Lexi Adams plays the part of Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese vendor of grass skirts, who sings like a nightingale and wisecracks like a sailor. She dominates the stage when she’s on it.
When Cable arrives to take part in a dangerous spy mission to a nearby island held by the Japanese, Bloody Mary picks him out as a suitable husband for her beautiful daughter.
She sings to him of the island Bali Ha’i, where Liat lives. Rowe, a freshman, does a remarkable job, communicating, almost without any words, but with great grace.
The two fall instantly and intensely in love.
“When I meet Liat, I turn into a little boy,” says Sipzner.
A high school junior, he describes the lieutenant’s role this way: “He’s a young guy who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl. He realizes he’s racist.”
When Cable says he cannot marry an Asian girl, Bloody Mary drags her away.
Meanwhile, Nellie Forbush has learned that the mother of De Becque’s children was Polynesian, and she rejects De Becque.
When De Becque asks Cable why he and Nellie have such prejudices, Cable says, “It’s not something you’re born with.”
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,” he sings. “You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear….You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of the people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught….”
When South Pacific first toured the southern United States, Georgia legislators introduced a bill outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow” and one lawmaker said, “A song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.”
“Love never changes,” said Sipzner, “and issues of race are still prominent.”
He started with The Guilderland Players because, he said, “They were short on guys, and I really like singing.” He also plays the flute, and hopes to pursue a career in music education.
He’s stayed with it because, on stage, he said, “You can be anyone you want to be.”
Girvin called Cable’s song about being taught to hate and fear “really meaningful.”
“At the end,” Girvin said of her character, “love wins over her racism….The war is what brings Nellie to her realization: I need to love him for him.”
Christine Meglino, who trod the boards at Guilderland as a student — as Kim in Bye-Bye Birdie, as Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods — is making her directing debut with South Pacific. She replaces long-time director Andy Maycock, who wanted to spend more time with his family, but still helps out with set production.
Art students painted the colorful palm trees that edge the stage and the alluring backdrop of the island Bali Ha’i. “It’s so colorful and so bright,” said Meglino, contrasting the set with the drab March environment here, “people will be mad when they go out to their cars.”
After graduating from Syracuse University, Meglino teaches English now to ninth-, 11th-, and 12th-graders at the Heatly School in Green Island, where she challenges her honors students with such books as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
And she continues to perform. “Being on the stage brings me back to life,” said Meglino.
The Guilderland Players, she said, had a big impact on her life and she likes giving back. Last year, she choreographed Hairspray with Erin Parks, another Guilderland alumna.
This year, Parks choreographed South Pacific, which Meglino termed “challenging.” She explained, “Usually, you have males and females dancing together. In South Pacific, they’re separate.”
Parks has come up with “manly dances” for the sailors.
A third alumna, Lauren Jurczynski, is coordinating the pit orchestra.
“It’s cool to see they’re keeping the same traditions,” said Meglino of the current Guilderland Players. This ranges from the Saturday morning warm-up songs — “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain and “Car Wash” — to the pep talk that seniors give the cast on what they mean to each other.
“It boosts self-esteem,” Meglino said of being in The Guilderland Players, “and provides a family.”
Despite the long hours — with auditions in November and rehearsals now four days a week after school and Saturdays — Meglino says, “It’s the best part of my day and I love my job.”
She researched the play after Teeter told her, “We have the kids to do this.”
James Michener won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his book of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific. Richard Rodgers, who wrote the music, and Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote the book with Joshua Logan, drew on Michener’s tales to create their musical. They, in turn, won the Pulitzer Prize for Musical Drama in 1950.
“I don’t usually like those traditional musicals,” said Meglino, “but this is good, not light and fluffy. It deals with issues of racism, which is really important. And it has some great songs.”
She names “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”
“Being set in World War II, people from that generation can relate to it. But people from our generation can relate to it, too,” said Meglino. “We’ve grown up with a war as well.”
“My grandmother is 86. She was around when it first came out and will love it. Elementary and middle-school students will love it,” said Meglino, pointing out that two elementary students, Nina Tuxbury and Samuel Bemis, play the parts of De Becque’s children.
“I hope teenagers come and see it’s more than another musical. Racism still exists in our society. These issues still face us. Overcoming racism is really important,” said Meglino.
She concludes, “A huge part of this show is the whole idea of how wonderful love is, yet sometimes we worry over these petty things. In this case — race. We put that above love and it makes us question why — why does it matter? Shouldn’t love triumph?”
She answers herself. “I’m a romantic. I think it should.”
South Pacific plays on the Guilderland High School stage, off School Road in Guilderland Center, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $5 or $10.