SHARPSVILLE — Talk about deja vu.
When Jen Stephenson last acted in “South Pacific,” she was a Hickory High School student.
“It was with Don Struck and Ed Groves in 1988,” she said.
Struck is stage director and Groves music director for Area Community Theater of Sharpsville’s “South Pacific,” which runs this weekend and next in Pierce Opera House, Sharpsville.
“The guy who plays Billis was actually the little boy, Jerome,” in the Hickory production, she said, referring to the all-grown-up John Morris.
One thing that has changed for Stephenson, who plays Nellie Forbush, is her perspective of the musical’s controversial themes.
“My depth of understanding of what is going on when compared to when I was in high school are eons and eons apart,” she said.
With that greater understanding comes a better performance, she said.
“I think it’s a much deeper performance now,” she said.
The 1949 play by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who had libretto help from Joshua Logan, was based on James Michener’s book, “Tales of the South Pacific,” from 1947.
Nellie is an American nurse who falls in love with a French plantation owner, but struggles to deal with his mixed-race children. An American soldier romances an Asian woman, cementing the theme of culture clash.
“It’s one of the classics in the repertoire,” said Alan Anderson, who plays Nellie’s love. “The themes that were groundbreaking when it came out are equally relevant today - bigotry, racism.”
Some folks who didn’t agree with the characters’ romantic inclinations cried foul, even calling the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” indecent and anti-American.
Stephenson said the 60-year-old controversy played into her wanting to act in it again.
“The depth of the controversy - it was a play that addressed things that were not addressable back then,” she said. “This musical was not afraid to put it on the table.”
There are other reasons to want to bring back “South Pacific,” Anderson said.
“It’s one of my mother’s favorite musicals,” he said. “It’s a great role for a bass and a very passionate character.”
Enduring tunes include “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out My Hair.”
The musical also brought Broadway into a new era with its combination of singing, dancing that breaks out of the mold of a chorus line, and plot, Struck said.
“This is the first true musical to come out of Broadway,” he said.
Struck, who directed ACT’s “Pirates of Penzance,” is in charge of making “South Pacific” work within the limitations of the opera house. It is the biggest musical ACTS has thus far attempted Ð it has 35 in the cast - but the limited off-stage room makes the logistics of costume changes and scene and prop storage challenging.
“It’s kind of difficult bringing the South Pacific into Sharpsville,” Struck said. “We had to condense everything a little bit to fit the space.”
Aside from one scene where there is some spillover into the audience area, all of the action takes place on the stage, and all of the actors come on from the wings.
“We want to have everything up here, high in just one area,” Struck said.
The space constraints demand “discipline” from the cast and crew, and they have responded like pros, he said.
“Tremendous group,” he said. “These folks are fantastic.”
“I have to admit having a lead is daunting, but we have such a wonderful group of people here having a blast,” Stephenson said.
“You learn so much from them.”
“South Pacific” will be staged at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday and March 21-23 and 2 p.m. Sunday in the opera house at 100 N. Mercer Ave. Reservations: 724-815-4388. Tickets: at Muscarella’s Cafe Italia, Sharpsville. Info: www.actsharpsville.org