Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2006
When I go to see an oft-produced classic like South Pacific I ask myself two questions: Does it effectively tell the story? Does it bring anything new to the story? Some theatrical reimaginings bring so much that is new that the original intent is lost, while some stolid traditional productions stay so mired in the past that the story goes stale. It is a real trick to present a well-known show in a fresh and entertaining manner, and the Mac-Haydn has succeeded admirably.
South Pacific is a great work of theatre because it tackles big issues like war and racism head-on, while still being entertaining. Surely it contains some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beautiful music, and the songs grow so organically from the characters and situations. People don’t express their inner emotions in song in real life, and the craft of writing musical theatre is to find ways in which it can become plausible for them to do so. From the opening scene, where Nurse Nellie Forbush and French planter Emile de Becque admit that their new relationship is a serious one, every song springs effortlessly from within them.
Provided with such sublime material, it was up to director John Saunders and his assistant and choreographer Karla Shook to select the right cast and find that narrow path to a clear, modern presentation of the show. Luckily South Pacific is remarkably modern despite being 57 years old. Except for the technological advances in communications equipment that would now be available to de Becque and Lt. Cable during their covert operations, nothing else in the play is really dated. As far as the racial attitudes expressed by Nellie and Joe Cable, it is worth remembering that at the time this show was written the interracial relationships that Bloody Mary offers Lt. Cable and that de Becque had with his common-law wife were not just considered immoral, they were illegal in many states, including Nellie’s native Arkansas. Nellie and Joe are not just reacting with prejudice, they realize the tremendous burdens they would face, and place on their loved ones, if they were to bring Liat, Jerome, and Ngana back to America to live.
With one glaring exception the casting here is spot-on. Newcomer Elizabeth Dowling is a delightful Nellie, wholesome and attractive, smart and honest, with a beautiful singing voice. She is nicely paired with Mac-Haydn stalwart Jim Middleton as de Becque. Middleton does not have the big, operatic voice usually associated with this role, which is not to say that his singing is inadequate. He sounds fine, and the fact that de Becque isn’t all voice leaves room for more exploration of character.
Stephen Bolte cavorts winningly as Luther Billis. I knew that seeing him in a cocoanut shell bra would be worth the price of admission and it was. I like to imagine my late father-in-law, a ship’s medic in the Pacific theatre during World War II, as one of the hangers-on in Luther’s gang. I know he wouldn’t have been a Billis, but he would have enjoyed being on the side-lines of all the shenanigans.
Angelica Maria Rodriguez really steals the show as Bloody Mary, the Tokinese souvenir dealer. While I have no doubt that there were women like Mary earning a living off of the military presence in the South Pacific, the character can come across as a gross ethnic stereotype if played insensitively. Rodriguez plays the part broadly but not crassly. Her Bloody Mary is cunning and determined to make a better life for herself and her daughter. If playing the fool with the sailor boys will put more dollars in her pocket, it’s a small price to pay. Jimm Halliday has come up with a peach of a costume for Rodriguez, old army fatigues encrusted with sewn-on baubles and gadgets that have caught Mary’s eye, with a ratty grass skirt over it all. Rodriguez gives Mary a permanent crouch and a bent kneed scuttling walk. This character belongs not to any specific race or place but is her own unique creation.
The military brass Captain Brackett and Commander Harbison are played with spit and polish by Sky Vogel and Jason Paul respectively. Andrew Eckert and Paul Flanagan each had nice small turns as Lt. Buzz Adams and Radio Operator McCaffrey.
I saw London Sperry and David Armanino as de Becque’s children Ngana and Jerome. They alternate in the roles with Zoe McGreery and Rider Stanton. Sperry and Armanino are professional and talented children who acquitted themselves well, as I am sure McGreery and Stanton do as well.
Alas, Sean Zimmerman and Jarusha Ariel are in way over their heads as Lt. Joe Cable and his beloved Liat. Zimmerman may look “damned saxy” as Bloody Mary says, and he sings nicely enough, but he is not a strong actor, and Cable is a passionate role, especially in the second act when he is wracked with the pains of malaria and of hopeless love. Maybe it's just me, but I find talent a lot “saxier” than perfect pecs. Ariel also looks lovely, and Liat is a difficult role because it is nearly mute, but again the fire is not there. My heart usually breaks in Liat’s final scene, and here I didn’t even muster a sniffle for Lt. Cable’s death.
Usually the word “set” is not applicable to Mac-Haydn productions because every square inch of stage space is needed for acting, singing and dancing, but here designer Robert Hamel has opened the limited space up as wide as possible, and wrapped the audience in beautiful blue skies and lush foliage and flowers. The stage floor has been painted beautiful swirling shades of blue, as if the South Pacific is literally flowing through the theatre, with an archipelago of leaves (or are they islands) drifting mid-stream. The whole theatre felt open and light and airy, which was a good thing because the night I attended the atmosphere inside was decidedly tropical.
South Pacific does not allow for great creativity from the costume designer. Most of the characters wear some variation on military uniforms or well-worn 1940’s style casual attire. Halliday has come up with some interesting vintage bathing suits for the female chorus, and some daring native ensembles for the male dancers in the Bali Ha’i scenes. But I would like to ship him and the cast a gross of Hollywood Fashion Tape to help ensure that nothing shows which shouldn’t show. Dancing vigorously while scantily clad can be hazardous in that regard, and everyone feels so much more comfortable when everything stays in place.
South Pacific is such fine theatre and such an important show (what do you expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner based on Pulitzer Prize winning material?) that I encourage you to bring children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, just be warned that the show is long, and so the youngsters you bring do need to have fairly long attention spans to enjoy it
South Pacific runs through June 18 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for children old enough to sit still that long. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006