For the latest entry in my continuing interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q, I recent had the opportunity to pose four questions each to Jeffrey Ellis, director and four cast members of The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre’s upcoming production of SOUTH PACIFIC, the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical on stage at The Keeton Theatre from Thursday, October 12 thru Saturday, October 28.
Those familiar with the show know that alongside the tried and true fluffiness of a boy meets girl plot, the show contains a subplot dealing head-on with racism and prejudice, topics that still spark debate and concern nearly seventy years after the show’s 1949 Broadway debut. When I spoke with Ellis and company, I was a bit hesitant to approach those subjects, but felt it necessary to honor the full scope of the show. As expected, Ellis and company didn’t sugar-coat and responded with thoughtfulness and honesty.
JONATHAN PINKERTON: Jef, one thing I love about you, and something we share, we both seem to have total recall of the first time certain music, movies and musicals entered into our stream of consciousness. What’s your first SOUTH PACIFIC memory?
JEFFREY ELLIS: Probably from my earliest childhood, actually…I remember listening to the Original Broadway Cast album on vinyl on my sister’s stereo when I was very little. She has very eclectic musical tastes which no doubt has influenced my own eclectic tastes and so as a child, I listened to virtually every genre of music. I fell in love with the score as a child and it still has the power to transport me instantly and to elicit a visceral response. The Rodgers and Hammerstein score is lush, haunting and beautiful and the lyrics are beautiful and expressive. That’s why I have wanted to direct this show for so long.
JP: Let’s jump right in. Given the current racial tensions, certain elements of SOUTH PACIFIC are as timely today as when first performed. Did you sit down with your cast and discuss this, or have you let that message happen organically through their performances?
JEFFREY ELLIS: Obviously, that is something we have talked about during the creative process — but that is something I always do when mounting a new production. I like to give my cast and crew members some historical perspective for the show and what we are hoping to accomplish and, perhaps more to the point, what we hope our audiences take away from the show. We’ve discussed the still relevant issues of racism in America and how, as artists, we can have an impact on people who see our production. We want to make them think, we want to trigger memories for them and we want them to leave with these issues at the forefront of their minds and to have conversations about these issues. My cast and crew members have responded passionately to the stories told in SOUTH PACIFIC and they have drawn parallels to their own lives, which makes everything they do much richer than perhaps even they could have originally imagined.
JP: Having been in the audience for most of your recent directorial presentations, I know that you typically have a way of giving your shows that special Ellis touch. In what ways can we look forward to seeing your hand in SOUTH PACIFIC?
JEFFREY ELLIS: To be very honest, I feel like I have poured my heart and soul into this show and, in many ways, I think I might be prouder of this show than anything I’ve ever done before. Certainly, it’s SOUTH PACIFIC as we’ve all come to know and love it, but it’s also completely unlike any rendition of the show that I have ever seen. There are funny, light-hearted moments, along with lovely and romantic sequences and some heart-wrenching scenes in which the gravity of the situations in which these characters find themselves is felt very strongly. And, as is my wont, there are flashes of cinematic throwbacks, if you will, to capture the sense of the time and place of the South Pacific during wartime.
JP: I’m about to chat with four members of your cast and crew. Let’s play a little word association. What’s the first word you think of when you think of each of the following:
First, Keeton’s new Musical Director, Noah Rice –
JEFFREY ELLIS: Brilliant…he’s incredibly talented and focused and intense: an ideal collaborator who, from time to time, shows flashes of genius in his work. We also share a rather wicked sense of humor and that makes working together a whole lot of fun.
JP: Next, the show’s leading lady, Lindsay Hess, who’s playing Nellie –
JEFFREY ELLIS: Focused…there are so many ways to describe Lindsay: She’s a dream to work with, focused and committed from the very first moment we set out on this journey, and she brings Nellie to life with such heart and a very genuine sense of who she is. The audience will adore her.
JP: What about Chris Cavin, cast as Nellie’s love interest, Emile –
JEFFREY ELLIS: Astonishing. Chris has a glorious voice and he brings to the character of Emile so much from his operatic background. I think this is, without question, the best performance I’ve seen him give. We’ve worked previously on Cabaret and My Fair Lady and he was terrific in those roles, but as Emile he transcends anything and everything I’ve seen him do onstage.
JP: Finally, Brooke Leigh Davis, who’s playing my personal favorite, Bloody Mary –
JEFFREY ELLIS: Effortless. I think Brooke is one of those performers who is beloved by everyone who sees her take on a role onstage. She has an exquisite voice, of course, but she’s also a hardworking actress who delves deeply into a role in order to reveal the various layers of her character. Bringing Bloody Mary to life is very challenging and Brooke has taken on everything I’ve thrown her way with grace and persistence.
JP: If memory serves me, you played Jenny in Circle Players’ production of COMPANY which was presented on-stage at the Keeton Theatre back in 2012. So, while you’ve technically been in a production at The Keeton, is this your first show for The Keeton?
LINDSAY HESS: Wow, can’t believe it’s been five years, and you have an incredible memory! Yes, this is my first show for the Keeton, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to get to work with this fantastic group of people! I love them all!
JP: You play Nellie. How are you most and least like her?
LINDSAY HESS: I think, that like Nellie, I’m an encourager and an optimist! I like to find the fun and the beauty in all things and situations. We defer in our upbringings. Hers was filled with prejudice and intolerance for different kinds of people and mine was quite the opposite. She’s also a southern girl, and well, I’m a yankee (she said with a wink).
JP: One of Nellie’s most famous moments comes when, in an attempt to get over a boyfriend she declares to Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair. What’s the easiest way you’ve even gotten over a love gone awry?
LINDSAY HESS: hmm…well, when I was much much younger and I didn’t want to “date” a boy any more, I would convince him that he really wanted to be dating one of my friends instead of me…. that way I wouldn’t feel bad about hurting anyone’s feelings.
JP: Speaking of fellas, I’m about to chat with your leading man, Chris Cavin. How has it been to share the stage with him? (Don’t worry, he’ll get equal time, as I’m asking him the flip)
LINDSAY HESS: Chris is fantastic to share the stage with. Although we only met recently, I feel like I’ve known him for years! He’s really perfect for this role, and I just know that audiences are going to fall in love with him as Emile.
JP: I always forget that SOUTH PACIFIC was based on James Michener’s 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific. Have you by chance read it?
CHRIS CAVIN: I have never read it. Having learned the richness and complexity of these characters, however, I look forward to reading it (once I have some free time, that is).
JP: Having appeared in MY FAIR LADY at The Keeton earlier this year, you’ve worked with Jef as a director…Give me the dirt….how is he to work with on such a storied show?
CHRIS CAVIN: Jef always knows exactly what he wants out of his actors and he is not afraid of telling us. One of my favorite parts of doing shows with him, is that he loves to ground his shows in historic reality. At our first read thru of the script, he tells us exactly what is happening historically in the setting the show. It is one of my favorite parts of his process. He brings out the stories in each of his shows that remain relative to life today.
JP: When I spoke with your leading lady earlier, I asked Lindsay what it’s like sharing the stage with you, so it’s only fair you fill me in on having her as your leading lady?
CHRIS CAVIN: Oh, Lindsay! This is my first show with her, and I must say, I am taken with her! She is such a professional, and what a beautiful, flawless voice. Our scenes feel so real, she really does make my job easy. I just need to know what her next endeavor is, so I can audition!
JP: As Emile, you get to perform Some Enchanted Evening, one of SOUTH PACIFIC’s most beloved songs. Where this production is concerned, which songs performed by your cast mates do you secretly love witnessing being performed?
CHRIS CAVIN: SOUTH PACIFIC has so many memorable songs and this cast is so talented that you can’t help but sit back stage and try to take it all in! I love to watch Lindsay’s A Wonderful Guy and I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair. Brooke is absolutely wonderful singing Bali Hai. She has such a commanding, beautiful voice. Austin Jeffrey Smith is amazing singing Younger than Springtime. Yes, I am aware that I mentioned most of the solo songs in the show, but I love them all!
JP: Before we talk specifically about SOUTH PACIFIC, let me first congratulate you on being named Keeton Theatre’s new music director and ask you what that’s been like so far?
NOAH RICE: Thank you! It has been an absolute blast. I had the privilege of also co-directing my first two shows, MARY POPPINS and BIG RIVER, which allowed me to really delve into the directorial process. I’m now settling into the Resident MD role as I collaborate with brilliant director Jef Ellis on SOUTH PACIFIC and our upcoming holiday show, WINTER WONDERETTES.
JP: Now, on to SOUTH PACIFIC…I always find it interesting when I bring friends to Keeton who’s not been to a show there before and if the orchestra isn’t in plain view, inform them that the band is live. Do we get to see you guys during the show?
NOAH RICE: We are most definitely live! If you caught BIG RIVER, you saw the band featured onstage with the actors, which was a treat for us! But for now, we’re back in our secret little orchestra pit.
JP: Speaking of your musical team, who have you got playing with you in the orchestra for SOUTH PACIFIC?
NOAH RICE: I feel so lucky to have such a fantastic team of instrumentalists. We are small but mighty! In SOUTH PACIFIC, you’ll hear John Todd and Caleb Dinger on keyboards, Raymond Ridley on woodwinds and Liz Ficalora on percussion.
JP: So much of the score of SOUTH PACIFIC is simply gorgeous. Do you have a favorite number?
NOAH RICE: SOUTH PACIFIC happens to be my favorite Rodgers & Hammerstein score. I think my favorite number is I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy. The opening is turbulent and exciting (“…and they’ll say I’m naive as a babe to believe every fable I hear from a person in pants…”), which leads into the hauntingly beautiful verse melody (“Fearlessly I’ll face them and argue their doubts away. Loudly I’ll sing about flowers and spring…”). It’s Rodgers & Hammerstein at their best— gives me chills every time! Lindsay Hess sings the role of Nellie with such uninhibited joy; I can’t wait for you to hear it!
JP: When I heard you were playing Bloody Mary, I knew I had to chat with you. She’s my favorite, you’re my favorite, so it’s a match made in musical theatre heaven. What’s your favorite aspect of Bloody Mary?
BROOKE LEIGH DAVIS: I like that you see a mother who will do anything for her daughter. Right or wrong. She goes out of her way to arrange the best future for her daughter and then you see her anger when it begins to fall apart.
JP: As I said, I’m a huge fan of Bloody Mary, especially Juanita Hall’s portrayal in the 1958 film, nearly a decade after she became the first African-American to win the Best Supporting Actress Tony for her performance in the show’s Broadway debut. When stepping into a role with such an important past, does that change or affect the way you make it your own?
BROOKE LEIGH DAVIS: I would say no it doesn’t change anything. I saw the film years ago and I watched it again for reference after we worked through the script. I already had an idea of how I wanted to make this character mine. The movie helped me to stay the path that I’ve chosen. I am happy to embrace the past and honor the work. I’m looking forward to hopefully showing something a little different.
JP: I’m not going to lie. Over the years, I’ve seen some stage productions in which Bloody Mary became too much of a caricature. Has Jef given you any direction in keeping her entertaining, but realistic?
BROOKE LEIGH DAVIS: We actually had a conversation about what makes her real. Jef has asked for some very specific things on stage which has really been helpful to me. She’s funny and that comes across quickly. I want people to see that there is some part of Bloody Mary we can all relate to personally.
JP: I touched on this a bit when I spoke with Jef, but the subject of race and seeing people for who they are at their heart, not what they look like, is sadly still as prevalent today as when SOUTH PACIFIC first debuted. That said, what do you hope people come away with after having seen SOUTH PACIFIC?
BROOKE LEIGH DAVIS: I hope that people walk away with the understanding that we all need a self check every now and again. Ask ourselves if we hold that hatred that says we won’t look past what we see on the outside. Nothing changes until we see the problem that lies within and work to address that. We can block our own blessings because we don’t like the package it comes in.
Directed by Jeffrey Ellis, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC opens at The Larry Keeton Theatre (108 Donelson Pike, Nashville, TN 37214) Thursday night, October 12 and continues through Saturday, October 28. CLICK HERE for Tickets or call the box office at 615.883.8375. Tickets for dinner and show are $30 for adults and $20 for children under 12; for show only tickets are $25 for and $15 for children under 12. There is a special show-only price of $18 per adult for Thursday night shows. Salmon upgrade for dinner is available for $7. Group rates for parties of 15 or more are also available. Thursday through Saturday Dinner seating begins at 5:45 p.m. with curtain at 7 p.m. Sunday matinee lunch seating begins at 12:45 p.m. for with curtain at 2 p.m. for Sunday matinees. To keep up with the latest from The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre, Like them on Facebook, check out their Official Website or follow them on Twitter.
If you’ve enjoyed this latest edition of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q, be sure and CLICK HERE to check out previous conversations. Wanna keep up with the latest from Nashville Arts Critic? Subscribe to receive free email alerts when new items are published by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler.