Winter has blown in early in Northeast Iowa.
Even though it’s the second week of November, the weather feels like it’s January. It probably makes some wish they can fly to a tropical island to get away from the cold and snow.
Luckily, for a few hours this weekend, those who come to the Rada Auditorium at Waverly-Shell Rock High School can take a virtual trip to Polynesia for a few hours. The W-SR drama department will present its fall musical “South Pacific” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Admission to the Rogers and Hammerstein classic will be $8 for adults, $5 for students and senior citizens. Tickets can be purchased online at https://www.onthestage.com/show/wavelry-shell-rock-high-school/south-pacific-83840.
Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted the musical in 1949 from a 1947 James A. Michener book “Tales of the South Pacific.” The story centers on a U.S. Navy nurse, Nellie Forbush, played in the W-SR production by senior Allie Jensen, and her on-and-off love affair with a French expatriate plantation owner, Emile de Becque, played by junior Cade Carpenter.
Drama teacher Allison Rasmussen directs the Go-Hawk players’ production, with vocal direction by vocal teacher Greg Wessel, while band director Jim Vowels leads the orchestra pit. Rasmussen said the rehearsals have been going great leading up to Friday’s curtain call.
“We are really blessed at the beginning that we could kind of take it a little slower and really get into the characters and get into the music,” Rasmussen said. “As we progressed, it’s really been really where we’ve been supposed to be doing, just peaking at the exact right time. We’re really excited for an audience.”
Jensen said preparing for “South Pacific” has been fun.
“It’s been a dream role of mine, to get to play a spunky nurse,” Jensen said. “The entire cast is amazing, and it’s just so much fun to play a classic musical, because we get the full pit and we get everybody on stage. It’s just such an amazing musical.”
Carpenter commented that “South Pacific” is a more serious musical than what W-SR has done in the past few years.
“Our cast is going to do a great job with it, and it’ll be a good time,” Carpenter said.
Last year, the students performed Disney’s “High School Musical,” while in 2017, they did “The Music Man,” which was written by Mason City native Meredith Willson.
Carpenter said playing Emile consists of a lot of pressure.
“It’s the lead, and got a lot of eyes on me,” he said, “but we’ve got some great supporting characters, a lot of great hope.”
Additionally, there are many darker elements to the musical. As the play is set during World War II, and the fact that Nellie is from Arkansas in the pre-Civil Rights Era, the students will be depicting the racism that was evident at the time, Rasmussen pointed out.
“We had a huge cast discussion about what it is like to be prejudiced against,” she said. “A handful of our students have had experiences where they have been bullied of their ethnicity or their sexuality.
“We talked about that, and I think that it was a really great, just feeling and understanding of the script and the story, because we were able to shine a light on how though that was back in World War II, how it’s still prevalent today, but how we can overcome that together.”
Emile has two mixed-race children from a prior relationship, which according to the story synopsis Nellie had a hard time accepting. Also, two of the secondary characters — Marine Lt. Joseph Cable, played by Donovan Wessel, and Tonkinese girl Liat, portrayed by Danae Hull — have an interracial affair.
Rasmussen said there are many lessons that can be learned from the Rogers and Hammerstein work that can be applied in the early 21st century.
“The one that I’ve always talked with the students first is that you have to be carefully taught,” Rasmussen said. “That’s part of the reason I love doing the show, because we were able to have the conversations and being able to teach our kids about being more open-minded and understanding and being a family as a cast and know what that feels like and sounds like.”
The cast and crew learned that “South Pacific” was this fall’s production back in the spring, and they all watched the 1958 film adaptation that was released by 20th Century Fox and starred Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor.
Jensen and Carpenter said they really took to their characters.
Jensen said Nellie’s desire to see the world as part of the Navy was unusual for a young woman of the 1940s.
“Most of the reason why most of the nurses went into the Navy was to find a husband,” she said. “I really fell like I portray her really well, because me and Cole, we’re a lot alike. We’re both really upbeat, happy people, but there are definitely some parts of it where I really have to be content and emotional, because the main storyline is that she can’t marry Emile, because he’s foreign. She believes that’s not right.”
Carpenter said on Emile’s side, he doesn’t see the issues that Nellie has.
“He doesn’t really get the racism portion of it,” Carpenter said. “He’s kind of heartbroken, because they’re both in love, and she just can’t be with him for so many reasons.”
Rasmussen said some of the students were leery when she, Wessel and Vowels announced “South Pacific” as the fall 2019 musical production.
“We haven’t done something this traditional for a while,” she said. “I think they’ve really come around to appreciate the story, really enjoy the music and they’ve just been doing a great job.”
Carpenter also was skeptical initially upon the announcement.
“I knew it was more serious than some of the ones that we’ve done in the past,” he said. “I have faith in our cast and the directors that we were going to do a great job with that.”
Rasmussen said the chemistry between Jensen and Carpenter has been “amazing.”
“I’m just so proud of their professionalism and all of the ways that they have built their relationship,” Rasmussen said. “It just goes to show the kids’ understanding of their parts as well as their willingness to dive into the story on state.
“I’ve been thrilled with that, and the audience will be thrilled with it as well.”
She also had flowing words for the rest of the cast and crew.
“There are definitely places where everyone’s going to laugh, definitely places where you might shed a tear,” she said. “The story, though, takes place in World War II on an island in the South Pacific is very relatable to all sorts of places where you are in your life.”
W-SR usually switches back and forth between classic and contemporary musicals for the fall production. Rasmussen said the school can run that gamut because of who can become either the citizens of River City (“The Music Man”), the student body of East High School (“High School Musical”) or the servicemen and civilians of a remote Pacific island.
“We are blessed with hard-working kids and dedicated adults that make sure that our kids have the best experiences and that we are definitely a learning program,” she said. “It is more about getting kids understanding and growing as an actor and as a singer than it is necessarily about putting on a performance.
“We’re blessed to have … talented kids that can also put on a great performance as well as learn. I love that we are welcoming program that takes every kid who auditions as well as we’re not afraid to tackle any subject matter or any content.”
Jensen said the depth and breadth of W-SR drama is amazing.
“It shows the different ranges of acting that people can do,” she said. “I think Mr. Wessel and Mrs. Rasmussen’s idea is that they want to go back and forth between a classic and a modern musical, just because it gives us all of the experience of getting to play the high school kids, and then getting to play Navy characters, and it’s so much fun.”
Carpenter added the range says a lot about the students.
“We can do something light and fun and then the next year turn around and do something super serious and be taken seriously,” he said. “It’s just says loads about the cast and the crew that we have.”
Rasmussen hopes the audience can forget about the freaky Iowa weather for a few hours and imagine themselves in warmer climates.
“We hope that when the curtain opens, and there’s sand on the stage, and there’s palm trees, and you see the native island girls in leis and grass skirts, hopefully we’ll bring up warmer temperatures inside,” Rasmussen said.