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Phoenix Symphony and Theatre team for South Pacific

For the 2008 Broadway revival of “South Pacific,” the director wanted to spotlight the rich musical arrangements played by a jam-packed orchestra of 30.

“During the overture the roof of the pit retracted and everyone could see the whole band in their tuxedos playing their hearts out, and it always got a big ovation,” says Ted Sperling, music director for the Tony Award-winning production.

Next weekend Sperling will one-up himself by conducting the Phoenix Symphony, with nearly twice as many musicians, in concert performances of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Phoenix Theatre will provide a stripped-down staging of the 1949 musical.

“It will only be bigger and lusher with a full symphony onstage,” says Sperling, who won a Tony of his own for orchestrating “The Light in the Piazza” in 2005.

This is the third year the symphony has partnered with Phoenix Theatre. Their first collaboration was “The Music Man,” and last year they performed an original Rodgers and Hammerstein revue.

“Our audiences love it. They’re sold out every year that we’ve done it,” says symphony CEO Jim Ward.

“You get folks that love Broadway and theater, but you also get cross-pollination of more classically oriented folks who now are drawn to a different kind of music — or familiar music that’s served up in a different way.”

The full-symphony format is also a different experience for the performers, says Jeannie Shubitz, who was one of the Valley theater scene’s most talented sopranos until she moved to New York, just after starring in last year’s Rodgers and Hammerstein concert. She’s come back to play Nellie Forbush, “A Cockeyed Optimist” serving as a Navy nurse during World War II.

“Singing with the orchestra almost feels like your voice is being carried on the wave of music being produced behind you,” she says. “It’s phenomenal.”

Her character’s most familiar number is “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” but Shubitz says she is most excited to perform “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy.”

“It is an explosion of joy,” she says.

Playing that wonderful guy, French plantation owner Emile de Becque, is veteran Valley actor Rusty Ferracane. Like Shubitz, the number he’s most looking forward to isn’t the most famous one.

“ ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ is the song everyone knows, but my favorite is ‘This Nearly Was Mine.’ It’s so melodic and gorgeous and also heartbreaking,” he says.

“Being able to sing one of my favorite songs with a full orchestra is definitely on my bucket list.”

To keep the focus on the music, some of the dialogue has been trimmed. There will be scenic pieces and costumes, although no big dance numbers, says Phoenix Theatre artistic director Michael Barnard.

“Basically we play the apron (of the stage), 12 feet deep to 16 feet deep, depending on where you are,” he says.

In addition to a short rehearsal period — just a week to stage it before teaming up with the symphony to get everyone in sync — the concert format has other challenges.

Chief among them is that, unlike when the musicians play in an orchestra pit, the actors and the conductor are performing back to back.

“It’s really tricky,” Sperling says. “One hopes that in rehearsal you develop a real sense of what people will be doing so you can anticipate a little bit. You just have to develop feelers in the back of your head.”


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