Alexandra Rosati and Joy Barnum will play Seabee Luther Billis and Bloody Mary in the upcoming production of South Pacific. *Photo by Sarah Lagan
Alexandra Rosati and Joy Barnum will play Seabee Luther Billis and Bloody Mary in the upcoming production of South Pacific. *Photo by Sarah Lagan

If you loved Gilbert and Sullivan’s version of The Producers last year you will be interested to know that the same crew have been employed to put on the classic musical South Pacific next month. 

From the fabulous designs by Cleo Pettitt to the meticulous directing by Jenny Sawyer, the organizers promise a visual, musical and theatrical treat. What’s more there will be a star-studded cast with the likes of Robbie Godfrey and Will Kempe.

When South Pacific premiered on Broadway in 1949 it was considered to be sending out a progressive message about racism and prejudice. Two of the actors performing in Gilbert and Sullivan’s production say that despite the years gone by, the themes are as relevant now as they ever were. 

The story centres around an American nurse who is stationed in the South Pacific during WWII. She falls in love with a French plantation owner but finds it difficult to accept his mixed race children. The plot also focuses on separate romance between a US Lieutenant and a Tonkinese lady and the social implications of him marrying her. Meanwhile, US Navy Seabee Luther Billis (Alexander Rosati) takes on Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary (Joy Barnum) in their endeavours to sell souvenirs to the GI’s stationed on the island.

Love and prejudice

Racism is overtly tackled in this classic tale of love and prejudice which Barnum and Rosati see as worryingly relevant to the island of Bermuda today.

Rosati told the Bermuda Sun: “I think that is one of the reasons G&S picked the musical because, as well as it being considered a classical musical, the issues are just as topical today, particularly in Bermuda. It was a fairly early examination of prejudice and racism from an American point of view. The musical was based on an original book by James A Mitchener and his conclusion was that this isn’t something you should be concerned about — you are wasting you life if you miss out on opportunities because you have these
irrational feelings.”

Barnum, who is making her debut theatre performance as mother of Liat — Bloody Mary said: “As far as xenophobia in Bermuda is concerned I think that everyone should come and see it. Most people have their pre-conceived idea about what you are like if you are from Canada or what you are like if you are from the States… the Philippines etc. We are a total melting pot.”

The musical was based on a book of short stories by the 1947 Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Tales of the South Pacific, combining elements from its numerous stories (Logan and Hammerstein). The piece has since been revived as a film in 1958, television adaptations and a 2008 Broadway revival which won seven Tonys including Best Musical Revival.

The original musical was composed by Richard Rogers with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. It was a major box-office success and became the second longest running Broadway up to that point going on to win Pulitzer Prizes including Drama as well as Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score. Indeed, many of the songs have made their mark in theatrical history including Bali Hai, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, Some Enchanted Evening, There is Nothing Like A Dame and Happy Talk. 

While Barnum is no stranger to the stage as a classically-trained singer, this is the first time she has tread the boards as an actress. 

She had previously been invited to perform in her friend Catherine Hay’s prize-winning Famous For Fifteen play but couldn’t make the dates. She was then approached by Gilbert and Sullivan to perform in South Pacific.

“I am nervous but I think that has been making me go home and go over my lines! There is no real experience I can draw on, I can forget the lyrics of my own songs sometimes! But I figure I have never acted before so I should be able to bring something completely new to it.”

Bloody Mary is a pragmatist and Rosati describes her as “one of the most iconic in musical theatre”. The two characters are actually rivals at the same business of selling trinkets. Rosati describes Billis as a bit of a “wheeler dealer”.

“The two of us provide comic relief. But it’s good to remember that that is just a little bit of relief for a play with lots of serious issues to talk about which it does beautifully and which is off the charts good and memorable.”