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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    Some enchanted evening: Chay Yew on directing Goodspeed Musicals’ first production of ‘South Pacific’

    Danielle Wade, as Nellie, rehearses a number from Goodspeed Musicals’ “South Pacific.”
    Chay Yew, director of Goodspeed Musicals’ “South Pacific”
    Kevin Quillon, as Billis, and Danielle Wade, as Nellie, run through a “South Pacific” scene.
    The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ “South Pacific” rehearse.

    “South Pacific” was one of the first musicals that Chay Yew saw. When he was a child growing up in Singapore, he recalled, “My mom would call me into the living room to watch it with her (on TV). She’d be singing all these songs.”

    Cut to several decades later, and Yew is an acclaimed playwright and director. He received a call from Goodspeed Musicals’ Artistic Director Donna Lynn Hilton asking if he’d be interested in helming “South Pacific” at the theater in East Haddam — the first time Goodspeed has staged the show.

    “For me, it almost felt like if I were to do this, I wanted to make sure that it was kind of a gift back to my mother, who introduced me to theater, through television,” he said.

    After reading “South Pacific” again, he told Hilton that he was able to see the musical in a way that’s in line with what composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II had wanted while also understanding what current audiences might see the show and its themes to be.

    One of the things he thinks is fascinating about “South Pacific” is that Rodgers and Hammerstein created it after World War II (it premiered on Broadway in 1949), so there is a nostalgic, almost sweet feel to it — especially compared to the darker and more realistic stories on which it was based, in James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.”

    While Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music for “South Pacific” is gorgeous and they strived for the piece to be commercial, they also wanted to imbue it with their own progressive politics. So, Yew said, they had to walk the line “between what they can say which is impactful and meaningful to 1940s, 1950 audiences as well as bringing everyone in. I think to some extent the issues that feel prevalent in this musical are the notions of racism and what it means to be the other — and yet when two people fall in love, coming from different sides, how they find common ground.”

    That happens in two romances in “South Pacific.” American military nurse Nellie Forbush — describing herself as a “cockeyed optimist” in one of the show’s iconic songs — swoons for an older expat French plantation owner, Emile de Becque. But Forbush bolts when she discovers that de Becque had children with a Polynesian woman.

    And U.S. Marine Lieutenant Cable falls for a young Tonkinese woman named Liat, whose mother, Bloody Mary, is pushing for the relationship.

    Addressing racism in a musical was revolutionary at the time.

    “There was a moment when some people said (to Rodgers and Hammerstein), ‘Cut this song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Because I feel you’re preaching at us.’ And both of them said, ‘If you cut the song out, we’re not doing the musical because that’s the reason why we wrote the musical.’ They were progressive in wanting an equitable country and society. They used most of their musicals to do that,” Yew said.

    As boundary-pushing as “South Pacific” was at the time, modern theatergoers see it from a different perspective.

    “The question is how to maintain the musical the way it was written and refract it in such a way that today’s audiences have an immediate connection to the work,” Yew said.

    The task was to find ways of creating more complex characters without changing any of the words. Bloody Mary, for instance, who is played by Joan Almedilla, isn’t selling her daughter, as some viewers might see it; she wants her daughter to have a better life and to find happiness. So her choices are based on a maternal instinct, and that is how the character is being viewed in the Goodspeed production. In addition, they are giving Liat, portrayed by Alex Humphreys, some agency; even though she is objectified, she is shown to be a complicated soul.

    Yew also wanted to find a fresh way to approach the character of Cable and so decided to cast a Black actor, Cameron Loyal. That gives everything in his storyline an added dimension. What do other characters feel when he walks in as the only Black officer?

    “It opens the door: What does it meant to be a Black officer in World War II, which is very, very rare? What does it also mean at some point to play societal roles that are given to you so that you can’t even fall in love with a Tonkinese woman? And then you realize you can’t bring her home to your Black family. Guess what? Racism also exists on the other side. So it opens up a lot of questions and moments,” Yew said.

    Yew said there are a lot of beautiful dichotomies that Rodgers and Hammerstein created with the story, and finding an actress to portray Nellie who is able to play curious, excitable and the optimistic American was crucial. He cast Danielle Wade, who acts opposite Omar Lopez-Cepero as Emile.

    “When we got the moments where Nellie turns, I basically said, ‘I don’t think you should play it simply. Play it as if who his partner used to be is devastating to you, that you need to reject him.’ So hostility. … We all have felt that because we can never understand how we hate. Then in Act Two, when she explains, ‘I have no reason. I just feel what I feel,’ it’s so powerful that everyone got emotional,” Yew said.

    Yew said that for people who are seeing “South Pacific” for the first time, it feels very much present-tense, not something archaic in its attitudes and notions. He said he doesn’t look at classics as museum pieces but rather as new work and “by excavating some of these lines, you find a lot of wonderful things.”

    Ah, the music

    While the storyline is multifaceted, full of both humor and drama, the songs featured in “South Pacific” have become renowned: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” “Bali Ha’i,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.”

    While Yew knew the numbers, he said, “To hear it sung in front of you in rehearsals, it just transports you.”

    He talked about “Some Enchanted Evening.”

    “When it’s sung and the way they (Nellie and Emile) are trying to talk to each other, you realize it’s a proposal — how not to say, ‘I love you, will you marry me,’ but through the song. It is so moving and I get emotional. I feel musicals sometimes do a lot of wonderful things. This is a truly remarkable American invention, the American musical. That’s the reason, in a wonderful way, we keep coming back to them because I don’t know — they express a lot of things that sometimes plays can’t do or books can’t do,” he said.

    From Singapore to the U.S.

    As a child growing up in Singapore, Yew said, “Smart kids — thank God I was kind of one of them — we were groomed to be in the math and the sciences.” Students who weren’t as academically developed would be sent to the arts.

    But Yew was drawn to the arts. He was a fan of the “Chorus Line” soundtrack, which he listened to over and over. After he and his father traveled to the U.S. and saw the show, Yew asked his father what he thought. His father said that the musical wasn’t about “What I Did for Love.” It was about 36 people auditioning for a role. Eighteen got callbacks. Only eight got cast. And none of them were Asian.That, though, only made Yew want to pursue the arts more.

    He said his parents were good about his choice. They told him he couldn’t do what he wanted to do in Singapore; he needed to go to America.

    He did, becoming a celebrated playwright before segueing into directing.

    “Theater is probably the most exciting form of artistry because there is no wall between me and the audience. I am speaking to them every night, and every night the audience changes,” he said.

    Yew’s theater credits are extensive and full of acclaimed work. He won an Obie Award in 2007 for directing “Durango” at the Public Theater. He directed “The Light in the Piazza” at New York City Center Encores! In 2023. He just directed the opera “An American Soldier” by David Henry Hwang and Huang Ruo at the Perelman Performing Arts Center in New York City.

    He said that self-expression is not the norm in Singapore, while it is very much an American luxury.

    “Sometimes we forget this is our inherent right — and when we forget that we have that right, at some point, it will be taken away from us if we don’t ever exercise it. So for me to see America from the other side of the pond and see theater and art as a conduit to that self-expression, that you too have a story, that you too, if you have a voice, can actually speak for those who don’t have the voice and represent those people who can’t see themselves onstage — I find that powerful,” Yew said.

    If you go

    What: “South Pacific”

    Where: The Goodspeed, 6 Main St., East Haddam

    When: Through Aug. 11; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also 2 p.m. on select Thursdays, and 6:30 p.m. on select Sundays

    Tickets: Start at $30, prices subject to change based on availability

    Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org.

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