Inspired by the thrilling 2008 Broadway revival, and making splendid use of its gorgeous National Tour sets and costumes, Moonlight Stage Productions now brings Southern California audiences an unforgettable outdoor staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific under the inspired direction of its new artistic director Steven Glaudini.

9 I must confess that, prior to its rebirth at Lincoln Center and subsequent National Tour, South Pacific’s reputed greatness had always somewhat escaped me. Not so anymore, and for those who may have felt similarly about the 1949 R&H classic, Moonlight’s outstanding under-the-stars production will likely make you true believers as well.

South Pacific dares to open quietly, still almost unheard of at the time of its Broadway premiere. 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 US Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush and expatriate French planter Emile de Becque 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 stageful of 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.

4 South Pacifics I’d seen pre-Lincoln Center revival had seemed disjointed, the transitions between scenes and moods awkward, the show only coming alive sporadically. Blessed with Michael Yeargan’s superb Broadway tour set, South Pacific at Moonlight moves seamlessly from scene to scene, never losing steam, tension building inexorably as Emile first refuses, then agrees to the dangerous mission, an extended second act sequence in the Island Radio Shack as edge-of-your-seat as the finest suspense thriller.

As for the Moonlight cast, these are performers who can easily give ther Broadway/touring counterparts a run for their money.

3 It’s hard to imagine an Emile De Beque more able to turn a young ensign’s heart than 6’4” heartthrob Randall Dodge, reprising the role he impressed in earlier this year at the Lawrence Welk Theatre. Not only does Dodge possess quintessential leading man looks and charm, he has as gorgeous a baritone as has sung “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine,” and acts the role with humor, warmth, and even more baritone-deep depth this time round.

Opposite Dodge, director Glaudini has cast the captivating Hilary Maiberger, fresh from playing Belle in the national tour of Beauty And The Beast, as Moonlight’s Ensign Nellie Forbush. Not only is Maiberger every bit the perky charmer Nellie must be (and like Dodge precisely the right age for the role), she is a first-rate actress to boot, and sings every one of Nelly’s songs with the best of them.

6 Returning with Dodge from the Welk is the sensational Brenda Oen as Bloody Mary , once again singing “Bali Hai” and “Happy Talk” to perfection and milking every single Bloody Mary laugh, but this time adding an extra layer of dark calculation that makes this Mary even more memorable.

Danny Gurwin is Moonlight’s charismatic Lt. Joe Cable, and if the Broadway vet is somewhat older than the role is written, you won’t hear any complaints from this reviewer about his vocals (heavenly), looks (swoon-worthy), or acting chops (topnotch), particularly when Gurwin expresses the Lieutenant’s frustration with his own inability to rid himself of the prejudice he 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.)

5 Jason W. Webb gets cast against his accustomed leading-man type as Luther Billis—and it works, the Southern California musical theater favorite singing and acting the role with goofy charm and exuberant verve.

Solid supporting turns are provided by Taylor Bassett as Captain George Brackett and Ted Leib as Commander William Harbison, with Johnny Fletcher and Eric Hellmers offering fine comedic support as Stewpot and Professor. As Liat, April Abrazado is both a lovely presence and a graceful dancer. Sophia Aujero and Ace Young are pintsized delights as de Becque children Ngana and Jerome.

The South Pacific male ensemble not only look like WWII sailors, they make “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” both a great vocal showcase for their talents and also the heartfelt lament of a bunch of horny sailors. Joseph Almohaya (Henry, James Hayes), Mark Bartlett (Johnny Noonan), Kevane La’Marr Coleman (Tom O’Brien), assistant choreographer Casey Garritano (Radio Officer Bob McCaffrey), Danny Hansen (Marine Staff Sergeant Thomas Hassinger), Benjamin Lopez (Lt. Buzz Adams), Matthew Malecki (Richard West), William Shaffner (Morton Wise), Nicholas Sloan (Yeoman Herbert Quale), Bryan Allen Taylor (Kenneth Johnson), and Ben Williams (Petty Officer Hamilton Steeves) comprise the oh-so talented bunch. (Of particular interest is director Glaudini’s historically accurate inclusion of African-American sailors in the South Pacific, always seen at a certain distance from their white counterparts, as would have been the case in our country’s then segregated armed forces.)

8 The WAVES, Nellie’s best girlfriends (and her backup singers), are brought to vibrant life by the marvelously talented Madeleine Barker (Ensign Cora MacRae), Aubrey Elson (Ensign Sue Yaeger), Karina Gilette (Ensign Dinah Murphy), Amy McDowell (Ensign Connie Walewska), Marlene Montes (Lieutenant Genevieve Marshall), and Leslie Tammone (Ensign Janet MacGregor). Completing the company terrifically are Mel Domingo and Trinity Tuyen Tran as Bloody Mary’s assistants.

Musical director Elan McMahan conducts the Moonlight Stage orchestra—an almost unheard of 28-instruments, providing a symphonic backup to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic songs. Choreographer Carlos A Mendoza gets top marks for his musical staging of production numbers like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” and “Honey Bun.”

7 Yeargan’s Tony-winning scenic design makes for a production that is gorgeous to look at, bamboo screens rising and falling in various configurations, with a huge map of the South Pacific orienting us smack dab in the middle of the South Pacific and the ocean and Bali Hai always visible in the distance. Catherine Zuber’s superb period costumes won a Tony as well, and Moonlight audiences can see exactly why. (Costumes are coordinated and executed by Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd, and Carlotta Malone.) Local lighting design whiz Jean-Yves Tessier does his accustomed brilliant work, with sound designer Chris Luessmann providing an effective mix of orchestra and voices.

Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager, Bonnie Durben properties master, and Sarah Zimmerman assistant stage manager.

At the risk of spouting a cliché, you may think you’ve seen South Pacific before, but unless you’re one of the lucky ones who caught its most recent revival on Broadway or on tour, you haven’t really seen the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic at its unforgettable best, that is unless you’ve seen it (or are planning to see it during its third and final week) at Moonlight.

Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.

–Steven Stanley
July 6, 2013
Photos: Ken Jacques

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