The YMTC ensemble perform “Thanksgiving Follies” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” at the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater. Photo: David Greenberg and Katrinka Reinhart
The YMTC ensemble perform “Thanksgiving Follies” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” at the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater. Photo: David Greenberg and Katrinka Reinhart

By James Corr

If you want to see one of the liveliest, most vibrant and engaging musical productions to hit the East Bay in a while, head to the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater this weekend.

The Youth Musical Theater Company’s revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “South Pacific” opened Friday, July 18, and features a cast of highly talented and dedicated young artists performing some of Broadway’s most memorable tunes: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i,” “There is Nothing  Like A Dame,” “Younger Than Springtime,” I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and the less well-known, but highly controversial in its day, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” (to hate).

YMTC, now in its ninth year, provides an opportunity for young singer/actors from throughout the Bay Area to sing, dance and contribute to every aspect of musical and stage production. Supported by professional directors, designers and a full, live orchestra, they normally put on three performances a year as well as workshops and a summer musical boot camp.

Recent shows include Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Wonderful Town” and “Sweeney Todd.” While many of the players go on to study music and theater with perhaps the hope of a star-studded future, just as many get engaged simply for the opportunity to express themselves.

Celeste Kamiya as Bloody Mary in YMTC’s production of “South Pacific.” Photo: David Greenberg and Katrinka Reinhart

One such performer is Celeste Kamiya (pictured above), who plays Bloody Mary, the sassy, biting, seller of grass skirts whose daughter falls in love with a handsome U.S. Marine lieutenant. Kamiya, newly graduated from the Urban School in San Francisco, is headed to Eugene Lang College in New York City in a few weeks to major in theater. But that doesn’t preclude other options.

“I’m interested in a lot of things,” she says, “including politics,” admitting with a laugh that some people would see a certain analogy between the two possible careers.

This is her ninth production with YMTC and one of the most challenging. The anti-racist theme of the story, she observes, was advanced for the late 1940s when “South Pacific” debuted but, at the same time, Rodgers and Hammerstein still retained some of the prejudices of their time vis-à-vis Asians.

“So you have to dig deep to find the room to play the role in a non-stereotypical way. You want to see Bloody Mary as a real human being with hopes and fears” she said. She credits YMTC’s artistic director, Jennifer Boesing, with coming up with an approach to Bloody Mary’s major song “Happy Talk” that’s “not so happy, really.”

Boesing herself says the musical’s message still resonates very much with her young cast: “We discussed it with the cast a lot at the outset—how to tackle the racial elements head on.” She notes that this is the company’s first Rodgers and Hammerstein production, and it contrasts with the more modern, edgier shows YMTC usually performs.

“But it grapples with really difficult issues,” she said.

The production’s romantic lead, Emile, is played by Ethan Ostrow (pictured below) in a performance that truly belies his youth. Now in his fourth year with the company, his previous major roles had been “dark” characters: Officer Lockstock in “Urinetown” and Judge Turpin in “Sweeney Todd.”

“They were bad guys,” says Ostrow, who is about to enter his junior year at Berkeley High, “whereas Emile is a genuinely good guy, honest and open, overcome by passion and love. That was a switch. On top of that, his songs are almost operatic, quite demanding, and well known: You can’t afford to make a mistake. Also, to get up there and be charming and romantic with a long-time friend (Caitlin Cobb-Vialet, playing Nurse Nellie Forbush) was a challenge in itself.”

Ethan Ostrow as Emile in “South Pacific” with Maya Wong and Malia Lee as his children, Ngana and Jerome. Photo: David Greenberg and Katrinka Reinhart

Ostrow also sees a musical career in his future, but hasn’t decided whether to focus on composition or singing and acting: “Right now, I’m trying out everything,” he said.

YMTC — at least for administrative and rehearsal purposes — will be returning to its Berkeley roots soon. In March of this year, Berkeley’s City Council approved a YMTC lease on two buildings at the southern end of Aquatic Park. In need of much refurbishment, the buildings are being renovated with the support of Sogno Design Group and a capital campaign is underway. Board President Laura Soble says the goal is to have the facilities ready for the 2014-15 season, which opens this fall with a production of “Cabaret.”

“Although we originated in Berkeley, we’ve been kind of nomadic over the years,” she notes. “It will be great to have a permanent place, a campus where our talented actors, professional staff, and corps of volunteers can call home.”

“South Pacific” is being performed July 25-27 at the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater, 540 Ashbury Ave., El Cerrito. For show times and tickets, check here.

Youth Musical Theater plans new West Berkeley home (o3.03.14)

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. It’s a post-your-own calendar so we also encourage you to submit your own events.

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