Stage preview: Ben Davis returns to Pittsburgh CLO for lead role in 'South Pacific'
August 4, 2016 12:00 AM
Ben Davis as 'Captain Georg von Trapp' in "The Sound of Music."
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Most people take time off to relax in a vacation spot far from the trappings of their workplace. Ben Davis is taking a two-week break from the national tour of “The Sound of Music” to come to Pittsburgh — and get right back on stage.
The Tony Award-winner is here to help provide some enchanting evenings as Emile de Becque in “South Pacific,” the finale of Pittsburgh CLO’s summer season.
Where: Pittsburgh CLO at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: Aug. 5-14. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, then 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14.
Ticket: $25-$85; pittsburghclo.org or 412-456-6666.
Mr. Davis has unleashed his rich baritone during three tour stops at the Benedum Center, including “Spamalot” (Galahad) and “Les Miserables” (Enjolras). He was here in May as Captain Georg Von Trapp, solving a problem like Maria by sweeping her off her feet.
Mr. Davis was not yet 40 when he played the role for the MUNY in St. Louis in 2013. That might seem young, but he points out that Broadway’s most recent Emile, Tony-winner Paulo Szot, was more in Mr. Davis’ age range as the wealthy French plantation owner who becomes enchanted with an Army nurse from Little Rock.
“I think [his age] is keeping more in line with the original story,” Mr. Davis said of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1949 classic. “I’m still older than her, but not to where it’s grandpa and this girl. I think that helps the audience along, because the love story between Emile and Nellie happens so quickly. Anything we can do to make that more believable I think serves the story well.”
“South Pacific” is not just a tale of wartime romance, but more pointedly, it takes aim at the racial prejudices that keep people apart.
Nellie (Erika Henningsen) runs away from Emile when she learns he has two mixed-race children. Lt. John Cable (James Snyder of Broadway's “If/Then”) falls for island girl Liat (Alex Manalo), but refuses to consider a future with her because of her heritage.
Rodgers & Hammerstein didn’t shy away from the subject when they wrote a duet for Nellie and Cable, with the chilling words, “You've got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made / And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade / You've got to be carefully taught.”
“It’s such a relevant story now, because, unfortunately, human beings tend to repeat history,” Mr. Davis said. “ ‘You’ve Got to Be Taught’ is such a prescient song, isn’t it? Those lyrics, I can’t get over it every time I hear it. And we’re reliving it now.”
The musical theater and opera star won a special Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre as part of the principal ensemble of Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme” in 2003. His most recent Broadway role was in “Violet” with Sutton Foster in 2014.
Reconnecting with a meaningful story is just one reason Mr. Davis would add work to his work schedule.
“Pittsburgh is one of my favorite cities to come to,” the Indianapolis native said. “We are two sports towns and I love sports, but it seems Pittsburgh has a leg up on on Indy, I’m sorry to say, as far as its support of the arts.”
He is staying in an apartment provided by Pittsburgh CLO this time around, but the well-traveled actor added that the Omni William Penn is “probably my favorite hotel in the country.”
Pittsburgh CLO continues a summer of adding newcomers to its ranks, including Mr. Davis and Genson Blimline, who reprises his Broadway and touring role as Luther Billis in “South Pacific.” Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary rejoins Mr. Davis from the 2013 MUNY production, which was a personal touchstone for the actor.
“It holds a very special place because at that time, I was dealing with a lot of loss and trying to feel hopeful about things,” he said. “I think this character, he left France because he wanted to live the life that was right for him. And also he has this woman come into his life who makes him feel hopeful again, and then he loses it, albeit temporarily, based on old prejudices. So there’s this push and pull of hope, of things gained and things lost, that really is beautiful.”
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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