'South Pacific' runs Sundays, May 18–June 15 (and one Saturday, June 7), at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre. 801 Panoramic Hwy., Mill Valley. 2pm. $20–$40. 415.383.1100
'I do get asked about airplanes—a lot!"
Linda Dunn, who is directing
South Pacific for the 101st annual Mountain Play—on Marin County's Mt. Tamalpais—laughs loudly and warmly when the airplane question is brought up. The last time South Pacific was staged in the massive, 3,000-seat Cushing Amphitheater, a now-legendary production, it included a thrilling fly-over by a squadron of WWII-era planes. So of course, with South Pacific returning to the mountain, that's what everybody, it seems, wants to know: Will there be airplanes?
"What I tell everyone," Dunn replies cagily, "is, 'You'll just have to come and see, won't you?'"
Beneath the planes-or-no-planes question is another. How does a director avoid disappointing audience members who fondly remember a previous production without repeating what was done before?
"I think," Dunn replies, "when something is really good about a production, you certainly can decide to keep it—but you have to bring a fresh approach to it. The way I approach South Pacific is quite a bit different. My idea is to move the show from the Broadway stage into more of a living history context."
Using the massive canvas available to her in such an enormous setting, Dunn has created a working, fully populated military installation, in which the action of the play will take place amid all the day-to-day activity that really would have been going on in such an environment.
"The set is very open," she says. "There's always something happening around the edges. It's been a wonderful challenge for the actors."
South Pacific is Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 adaptation of James Michener's bestselling Tales of the South Pacific. The play was a huge success when it first appeared, despite the rather enormous risks the playwrights took in adapting Michener's book. The play confronts racism directly, and has a less than reverent view of the way military bases operated during the Great War.
But that realism touched people, and years later, the story of nurses and marines on an island base in the Pacific can still pack a wallop. And packed with recognizable tunes, the musical also still gets audiences humming along.
Dunn's cast, a mix of Mountain Play regulars and a number of first-timers, includes Taylor Chalker as nurse Nellie Forbush, Randy Nazarian as the comically scheming petty officer Luther Billis, Tyler Costin as the lovestruck Lt. Cable, Mia Klenk as Liat, the focus of Cable's attentions, and Peter Vilkin as Emile, the expatriate Frenchman who catches Nellie's eye.
"Oh, and we've also got Jim Dunn as Captain Bracket," says Dunn. "There's an interesting little twist."
Jim Dunn, it should be noted, is not only the ex-husband of Linda, but until 2013 was the artistic director of the Mountain Play. For the previous 30 years, he personally helmed all of the Mountain Plays, including two of those legendary productions of South Pacific.
Linda Dunn is only the second woman to direct a Mountain Play. She follows Michelle Swanson, who directed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum a whopping 36 years ago.
"I hope," she says, "after this year, that all changes. There's no reason a lot more women shouldn't get the chance to work up there."