April 21 2010 12:00 AM

Themes of World War II musical resonate with audiences, says star

    The Seabees of “South Pacific” are an eclectic group, brought together by a war to an island they don’t know. According to Matthew Saldivar, who plays Seabee Luther Billis in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical’s tour, the 62 members of the cast and crew have become just like those Seabees.

    “They’re all very different people, from different parts of the country and from different ages, and what’s funny about the tour is that we are all these different people, bound together by our common skill set,” he said in a phone interview.

    “We’re selected as this group of performers and we kind of get on this metaphorical boat that is the tour, and we are kind of an island.”

    “South Pacific,” playing at the Wharton Center April 27- May 2, takes place during World War II, telling the stories of two couples and how the war and racial prejudice threaten to come between them.

    “It really shows the A m e r i c a n public who we were, where our sense of identity comes from, and it brings up the question of how we feel about ourselves now,” he said.

    “It was written at a time when the American identity was really being reformed, reshaped, into what it would be for really the remainder of the 20th century.”

    Billis is sometimes seen as an opportunist, doing everything he can on the island for personal gain. Saldivar said he sees his supposed opportunism as a practical trait.

    “I think he represents the American spirit of inventiveness, a positive opportunism,” he said.

    “Ultimately, he provides things that people need, like laundry service and showers and souvenirs to send back home. Even entertainment. All of these things are incredibly important, and even though he bends the rules to achieve it, it is a part of the American spirit.”

    Saldivar said that he likes to think all the characters he plays are similar to him. He said he connects with many aspects of Billis’ character; his loneliness, his creativity, his alpha-male nature, his resiliency, his deep affection for other people, his deep distrust of authority and his loyalty.

    “You identify with the fundamentally human aspects of the character. If you can identify the things that they care about, then you can reveal their journey. Their journey is based on the desire to have the things that they want, and to take care of the things that they care about.”

    The musical shows the characters facing the realities of a brutal war and brings up the issues of racism and fear of “the other.”

    “These are the great questions for the American society that we’ve had to struggle with and we continue to struggle with,” Saldivar said. “It’s a wonderful, joyful evening at the theatre, but it’s also very sophisticated and very probing into the American psyche.”

    ’South Pacific’

    7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 27,
    Wednesday, April 28 and Thursday, April 29; 8 p.m. Friday, April 30; 2
    p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 1; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 2

    Wharton Center


    (800) WHARTON