Director-choreographer Valerie Rachelle makes a stellar Glendale Centre Theatre debut with as fine an in-the-round production of the legendary Rodgers & Hammerstein classic South Pacific as you will likely ever see, one that strips away the cobwebs to reveal just why the legendary team’s third Broadway smash remains one of the greatest musicals ever.

Though often eclipsed by the first R&H collaboration, Oklahoma!, one that revolutionized American musical theater, and their last, The Sound Of Music, which has become the creative partners’ most popular work, South Pacific stands tall amongst the R&H oeuvre with its pair of timeless love stories, its hummable melodies and astute lyrics in one hit song after another, its richly exotic setting, its dramatic, suspenseful WWII time frame, its delightful bits of comic relief, and perhaps most importantly, its ahead-of-its-time examination of the racial prejudices so deeply ingrained in our mid-20th Century America.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s fourth Broadway musical (after Oklahoma!, Carousel, and the short-lived Allegro) dares to open quietly, still almost unheard of at the time of its Broadway premiere in 1949.

A pair of children living on a small island in the South Pacific early on in World War II sing the charming French language “Dites Moi.” Then comes the kind of extended dialog-and-song sequence that had already become a R&H trademark, with U.S. Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush (Heather Pond) and expatriate French planter Emile de Becque (Kelby Thwaits) falling in love over “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Twin Soliloquies,” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” It’s only then, a good twenty minutes into South Pacific, that the show’s male chorus makes its first entrance, a bunch of lusty sailors singing the praises of “Bloody Mary” (and women in general) in “There Is Nothing Like A Dame.” Shortly after, the scene switches to the Island Commander’s Office for one of the play’s central plotlines, the Navy’s request that de Becque help them on a daring secret mission that could easily cost him his life.

Having already impressed this reviewer with her Scenie-winning direction of Urinetown, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Sweeney Todd at Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre, director-choreographer Rachelle now gets to show Glendale Centre Theatre regulars what all that Scenie love was about, the UC Irvine MFA grad demonstrating her mastery at directing and choreographing in-the-round. (No matter which of four sides you sit on, you will not be shortchanged.)

Audiences may be surprised at just how young Rachelle’s Nellie and Emile are … and hallelujah for that. With lovely Broadway vet Pond and Scenie-winning, French-pop-star handsome Thwaits acting the iconic roles with charm and depth and singing those R&H hits quite gloriously indeed, the 20something Little Rock native and the 40ish French expatriate planter ignite romantic sparks like rarely before.

As in South Pacifics past, a pair of supporting players walk away with the scene-stealingest roles. As Bloody Mary, Carissa Deveza Dizon not only nails every Bloody Mary laugh and sings “Bali Hai” and “Happy Talk” with high-power pipes, she manages to convince us she’s more than twice her age, no mean feat for a Bloody Mary just two years out of high school. As for Shawn Cahill’s Luther Billis, the Glendale Centre Theatre favorite is even more quirkily memorable here than he was in his Scenie-winning performance in Big River, and that’s saying something. (Can you say “reinvents the role”?)

Looking every bit the young Navy officer, Michael Byrne’s Lt. Joe Cable not only hits gorgeous high notes in “Younger Than Springtime,” he acts the part with heart-breaking depth, expressing the Lieutenant’s frustration with his own inability to rid himself of the prejudice that Cable sings about so powerfully in “You’ve Got To Be Taught.” (How courageous and ahead of their time Rodgers & Hammerstein were to attack racial bigotry at a time when interracial marriage was prohibited by racist anti-miscegenation laws in much of the United States.)

Sawami Shinohara gives us an exquisitely graceful Liat, with Rob Schaumann and Justin Waggle doing solid, authoritative work as Capt. George Brackett and Commander Harbison. Asia Aragon and Trenton Muraoka are pintsized charmers as de Becque children Ngana and Jerome, while Hisato Masuyama-Ball makes for a delightful Henry (and gets to sing the show’s deepest notes as cleverly reassigned to Bloody Mary’s assistant).

(Note: The photos featured on Glendale Centre Theatre’s freshly redesigned website of a pudgy older Emile and a bleach-blonde Nellie are rather inexplicably not of Thwait and Pond, nor do they depict the younger and more attractive Cable and Liat of the GCT production.  If only production stills were made available to show you just how marvelous the real South Pacific stars look.)

Glendale Centre Theatre has filled the stage with a Broadway-scale ensemble. Nikko Arce, Sam Ayoub (Quale), Jonathan Brett (McCaffrey), Jacque L. Herman (O’Brien, Shore Patrolman), James McGrath (Adams), Ryan Clifford McMahon, John David Wallis (Stewpot), and James Paul Xavier (Professor) are for the most part refreshingly believable as lusty, all-American, dame-loving Seabees and Marines, with Amy Bolton, Holly Childers, Jennifer LaPlaca Levin, Sarah Newswanger (Dinah), Courtney Peterson (Head Nurse), and Courtney Potter (Nurse MacGregor) terrific too as Navy nurses. Song-and-dancewise, there’s not a weak link in the bunch.

Rachelle gives these triple-threats plenty to do in a larger-than-usual number of choreographed sequences, the men showcased in “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing Like A Dame,” the women in “A Wonderful Guy,” and the entire bunch in “Honey Bun” and a particularly imaginative “Thanksgiving Follies” sequence, all of the above clearly staged with theater-in-the-round in mind. Not surprisingly, musical director Steven Applegate has coaxed topnotch vocal performances from his cast.

I do have some quibbles about the historically inaccurate depiction of an African-American WWII sailor in a musical specifically about racism in the pre-Civil Rights movement 1940s. More troubling for this reviewer was hearing Hammerstein’s and Joshua Logan’s book sanitized for the GCT audience. Changing “stingy bastard” to “stingy penny-pincher” or “damn” to “dang” disrespects both the writers and an audience’s right to hear South Pacific as it was written.

Designwise, this South Pacific demonstrates Glendale Centre Theatre’s expertise in arena staging. The production’s unbilled scenic design effectively suggests the musical’s many locales with the addition of assorted set pieces, and the unbilled lighting design may well be the most gorgeous I’ve seen at GCT, evincing the movie adaptation’s color-filtered effects, albeit more successfully. Angela Wood and her Glendale Costumes have once again outfitted a GCT cast to perfection, with particular snaps for the Thanksgiving number. Kudos to sound technician Nathan J. Milisavljevich for insuring a professional mix of live vocals and prerecorded instrumental tracks.

Scott Reardon is assistant director and Marisa Martinez assistant choreographer. Paul Reid is stage manager and Liv Scott production assistant.

As much as any recent musical I’ve seen in Glendale Centre Theatre up-close-and-personal Orange St. space, South Pacific reflects just how A-1 GCT productions have become in the years I have been reviewing them. With Rachelle in the director-choreographer’s seat and a cast reflecting the caliber of performers being turned out by SoCal musical theater schools like AMDA, PCPA, UCI, UCLA, USC and others, I can’t help feeling that this must be GCT’s best South Pacific ever.

To paraphrase one of their greatest and best-crafted song hits, “There Is Nothing Like A Rodgers & Hammerstein Classic” to reveal just how much a so-called “musical comedy” can achieve.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
May 23, 2013

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