Enchanting for all

'South Pacific' hasn't been updated so older generations can enjoy their own slang for a change.

October 07, 2010|By Candice Baker
(Peter Coombs )

Editor's note: This corrects who will be playing Emile de Becque.

It may be rare, but sometimes landing a great part doesn't depend on who you know. Just ask Christopher Johnstone.

Johnstone has performed in operatic works like "The Pirates of Penzance" and "The Rape of Lucretia," as well as being a soloist for the Boston Pops and other orchestral performances.

Despite having a background much heavier in operatic and classical vocal performance than musical theater, the baritone ended up with a part in the touring production of the renowned revival of "South Pacific" following a routine open call in New York City.

In fact, Johnstone said he wasn't even very familiar with "South Pacific" prior to auditioning.

"I just knew it was a classic show, and I knew a few of the songs from it and that it was successful on Broadway," he said. "I had seen it once with Robert Goulet; that was pretty much it. Once I got called back, I went to see it and listened to the recording. I got more and more excited once I realized what a tour de force it was."


But he never even expected to get the role, given the auditioning process.

"It was kind of like a cattle call," Johnstone said. Actors signed up for a time to perform, and each time they were called back — if they were called back — they sung and read lines for more and more people.

"I wasn't holding my breath," Johnstone said. "It was going well, but I didn't think I would get it. I actually was worried a lot about if [taking the role] would be frowned upon in the classical world, but I got over it. It won seven Tony Awards, and with this director, you can't pass it up."

The revival of "South Pacific," directed by Bartlett Sher, swept the Tonys in 2008. The national tour debuted in San Francisco last year, and stars Carmen Cusack, who played Elphaba in the "Wicked" national tour, as Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. Leading operatic baritone David Pittsinger plays Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner who steals her heart in a time of prejudice and war.

Along with performing in the ensemble, Johnstone is the understudy for the actors who play Emile and Lt. Cable, another prominent role — in part because of his operatic background.

"I think it's nice for them to have someone who can do both if they need it," Johnstone said. "For me, it's been awesome because it gives me plenty to do. I can look at the show from three different angles, which is really fun."

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