Just because South Pacific has won seven Tony awards and is enjoying sold-out houses doesn't mean that backstage things are static. Over the past month, new cast members have been added, including: Liz McCartney, who has succeeded Lisa Howard in the role of Lt. Genevieve Marshall; and Greg Roderick, who has replaced Grady McLeod Bowman, the assistant dance captain.
In the most basic terms, cast replacements involve some afternoon rehearsals, so that the newbies can go through blocking and get used to the Beaumont stage. Stepping into a hit show has more subtle adjustments, too. Noel Coward, who had star billing most of his life but who didn't forget what it meant to be in the chorus, remarked in one of his letters, "Replacing someone in a smash is a little bit like coming late to a party: everyone may be glad to see a fresh face and may shower you with attention; or they may ignore you for a while, waiting for you to make the first move."
In the Seabees dressing room this week, just before a matinee, Eric L. Christian, who last month replaced Darius Nichols as a Swing member of the South Pacific ensemble reinforced Coward's views on coming in to a cast. "It's always a little different going in," says Christian, who just finished up a run in Cry-Baby on Broadway. "You're the new guy, so at first you sit back and observe. You have to find your way into the chemistry of the ensemble."
"With South Pacific," Christian continued, "there is an amazing camaraderie among the guys. And their backstage relationships help explain the continuing freshness of the show." Christian added that the kidding and the friendly insults and the bragging you see onstage "are all a reflection of what occurs in this dressing room. And, as with every show I've done, there's a level of healthy competition among the actors."
As if on cue, that statement was ratified by nearby cast member George Merrick, who has a special gift for well-timed sarcasm and was, I must insert here, the best Joe Hardy (in Damn Yankees) I have ever seen. "I do 700 push-ups before every performance," Merrick insisted. No one else here comes close."
Christian listened and smiled. "See what I mean?"
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com