One enchanted evening many years ago (seventy, to be exact) Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein opened their mint new musical, “South Pacific”, for its New Haven and Boston previews. The response was immediate and enthusiastic. Producer Mike Todd even advised them not to take it to New York. “It’s too damned good for them!” he remarked. But crowds on Broadway were already waving their money in front of the box office. And so the ambitious musical built from James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” ran for 1,925 performances and racked up a record Ten Tony Awards before going on tour.
And it’s still going. The 2008 Broadway revival won seven Tonys including “Best Revival”. Professional and community theatres return to “South Pacific” to give audiences a reliable treat, for not only do the songs wear well, the story is remarkably current.
Riverside Center’s just-opened production scores where it counts most in this tale of two non-traditional love affairs and war in the Pacific. Central to the conflict are one middle-aged Frenchman with the mysterious past, Emile de Becque, and his much younger love interest, the Arkansas-bred nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush. Around them swirl issues of Japanese invasion, high jinks among the sailors, and a separate, doomed love affair with further racial implications.
Penny Maas choreographs and directs, keeping the pace and energy up while allowing variations in humor and emotional color to get their full due. The importance of ensemble work in a large cast cannot be overstated, but finding the right Emile de Becque to begin with, and building on him, is essential. Riverside is fortunate in the discovery of Branch Fields, a bass opera singer, who brings not just a magnificent voice to such classics as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine”, but an appealing, subtly romantic – and believably French – interpretation of Emile.
Playing his love interest, Kate Marshall as Nellie is credible in her playful rendition of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “A Wonderful Guy” with the other nurses. What struck me as random stage wandering at the beginning eventually became a stronger and more focused purpose by Act II. The chemistry with Emile grows, but my favorite scene with her was the Thanksgiving follies spoof of ‘Honey Bun”, she as the sailor, and Luther Billis (Alan Hoffman) as the all-dolled-up Honey Bun.
A veteran on this stage, Hoffman excels in broad comedic roles, and makes a gift of the part of Billis. The ensemble of sailors is a treat to watch, never more so than when led by Billis in the rollicking, refreshingly un-politically correct “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” And then comes Bloody Mary.
I urge Riverside to use the talents of Kadejah One at every possible chance, because star quality like this isn’t going to stay local. Having wowed audiences here at least three times before, Ms. One truly defines the role of Bloody Mary, the raucous Polynesian opportunist who sees a sale wherever she sees a sailor. Anyone who knows “South Pacific” knows the haunting “Bali Ha’i”, and Ms. One’s performance is truly spellbinding. She also has a desperate motivation to secure a safe future for her young daughter, Liat, (Sally Roehl) by marrying her off to an American officer. That doomed officer is Lt. Cable (Joey Birchler).
Mr. Birchler makes the important transformation from colorless, slightly arrogant Marine to tormented lover who knows that an Island girl as a wife would never be acceptable to his society-bred family. We are treated to his rich tenor in “Younger Than Springtime” and again, with the bitterness of reality, in “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”, a remarkably trenchant song for 1949 that exposes the roots of racial prejudice.
And behind it all, the war rages. Capt. George Brackett (Robert Biedermann) and Cmdr. William Harbison (Ian Lane) reveal a plan to discover Japanese positions, a mission of inevitable danger. While I could believe Capt. Brackett’s habit of barking orders, Mr. Lane’s Commander lacks the crisp air of authority that we expect from our wartime officers.
Frank Foster’s scene design begins with a full stage sized map of the Solomon Islands and lifts to reveal de Becque’s graceful terrace which quickly shifts to a lounging area for sailors and nurses with hazy views of Bali Ha’i – to Bali Ha’i itself. Michael Jarett’s lighting is critical to the atmosphere but occasionally intrudes, as when the shadows of the actors are cast against what should be ocean air. Kyna Chilcot’s costumes are specific and well-conceived for all characters.
Lushly accompanied by Angela Donadio’s live orchestra, Riverside’s “South Pacific” maintains the romance, social struggle, and wartime urgency that made it one of R & H’s greatest hits.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.