The music in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “South Pacific” often has been called timeless. But now the Modesto Performing Arts is ready to prove its actors are just as timeless.
Forty years after the community theater company first staged the production, one of its actors will return to play the same part. Modesto native Mark Siciliani makes his homecoming as Luther Billis, a character he first took on with the then-named Modesto Youth Theatre in 1974 while fresh out of Davis High School.
Siciliani said he wanted to return to the role after working in stage, film, TV and radio in New York and Los Angeles to reunite with his former director, Modesto Performing Arts founding director Paul Tischer.
“I’ve been living in L.A. for the last 20 years. But I called Paul and said I’d like to do a show,” Siciliani said. “I was very excited to come back. Working with Paul again is a complete delight.”
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Siciliani will play the musical’s comic relief, the enterprising Navy Seabee who famously shows up in a grass skirt and coconut bra for the number “Honey Bun.”
Set in the South Pacific region during World War II, the show also follows the twin love stories of French plantation owner Emile de Becque (played by veteran Townsend Opera performer Joe Rykert) and Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (played by Modesto performer and teacher Randi Lineé), and young Lt. Joseph Cable (played by Joseph Rykert, Joe Rykert’s son) who falls for the daughter of island institution Bloody Mary (played by Stockton actress Elsa Fulton).
Tischer directs a cast of 40 for the production, which includes such musical theater favorites as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” This will be the company’s fourth production of the show; its last was in 1996. Tischer said he wanted to bring “South Pacific” back sooner but had difficulty securing the rights until now.
The musical first was produced on Broadway in 1949, when it won 10 Tony Awards, including best musical. It was revived in 1955 and again in 2008, when it ran until 2010.
The score attracted the senior Rykert to the role, which he said he has wanted to play for the past decade. He was last seen on stage with Modesto Performing Arts as Capt. von Trapp in its production of “The Sound of Music” two years ago.
“The music (in ‘South Pacific’) is just lush and gorgeous,” he said. “I had to grow into the role a little, but it was worth the wait.”
He also was excited to perform with his 22-year-old son, now a vocal performance student at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. The younger Rykert started performing with MPA when he was 4 years old and has done close to a dozen shows with the company.
While Tischer expects the audience to leave the theater humming the show’s familiar tunes, he said the appeal of the piece is more than just its tropical locale and sunny numbers.
“It really has a serious story behind it, unlike some musical theater,” he said. “There’s a serious message about racial prejudice. It has a universal theme that still applies today.”
Much of the tension in the piece comes from prejudices between the white U.S. military personnel stationed on the island and its native Tonkinese people. One of the musical’s key numbers is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” sung by Lt. Cable about racial hatred. His character and Lineé’s Nellie must both move past their own bigotry if they are to find love.
Fulton, who also played Bloody Mary in MPA’s 1996 production of “South Pacific,” said even though the musical was written 65 years ago, it still resonates today.
“We’ve come a long way, as far as racial things, but there’s still a way to go,” she said. “It’s an excellent lesson for young people.”