If there’s one thing Musical Theatre West’s old-meets-new revival of South Pacific makes abundantly clear, it’s this: Few 20th-century musicals can match the 1949 Rodgers & Hammerstein classic in absolute brilliance.
Based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, 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 mid-20th Century America.
Those only familiar with the current century’s Broadway smashes will get their first surprise at hearing an honest-to-goodness Overture, presented with its original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations and performed by a 28-piece orchestra under the baton of whiz musical director Dennis Castellano, with Surprise Number Two ensuing lickety-split.
Unlike today’s musical hits that seem each and every one to open with a great big, extended full-cast production number (think Legally Blonde, Hairspray, Billy Elliot, Memphis, In The Heights, Wicked, The Book Of Mormon, etc., etc., etc.), South Pacific dares to start quietly, almost unheard of at the time of its Broadway premiere and perhaps even less heard of in 2015.
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” with nary a chorus boy or girl in sight. Then comes the kind of extended two-person dialog-and-song sequence that had already become a R&H trademark in Oklahoma! and Carousel, 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,” and boy what a showstopper that is.
Then we’re once again back in dramatic territory, the scene switching to the Island Commander’s Office for one of the musical’s central plotlines, the Navy’s request that de Becque help them on a daring secret mission that could easily cost him his life.
And speaking of groundbreaking, how about a musical transformed in its last twenty-minutes or so into as edge-of-your-seat a straight play as the finest suspense thriller, the only hints that this is still a musical being a some instrumental underscoring and couple of very brief reprises? I’d like to see any contemporary show try to pull that off.
Musical Theatre West-debuting director-choreographer Joe Langworth served as associate choreographer to 2008 revival Tony nominee Christopher Gatelli, a fact that might reasonably lead one to expect a restaging of the admittedly magnificent Bartlett Sher-directed Best Revival Tony Winner.
Fortunately for those who prefer their L.A. revivals original rather than retreads, such proves the furthest thing from the truth. Langworth has indeed given MTW’s South Pacific the grit and emotional realism that made Sher’s vision so memorable, but one senses here an associate choreographer at last given the freedom to do things his way, and do them quite superbly Langworth does.
It helps enormously that MTW has opted not to rent the Broadway revival sets. Yes, San Diego’s The Music And Theatre Company’s rented sets are more vintage than innovative (I’m told they date back to the early 1980s), but they are Technicolor gorgeous to look at, particularly as lit by designer Paul Black, and the simple fact that this South Pacific looks so different from the one that toured SoCal five years ago gives Langworth added flexibility to do his own thing.
Leading man Christopher Carl may have understudied Emile De Becque (and gone on multiple times) in that tour, but his vibrant, charismatic, deeply-felt performance is no re-tread either. Not only is this Emile silver-foxy enough to turn the heart of many a Navy nurse (and a sailor or two I’m guessing), but he sings the part exquisitely without the operatic pretensions that have made “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” seem stuffed and stuffy in some earlier South Pacifics.
Recent Broadway-to-L.A. transplant Alessa Neeck is everything an Emile (or South Pacific lover) could ask for in a Nellie—feisty and fiery and absolutely real, and never more so than when a single word restored from Hammerstein’s pre-Broadway vision for the 2008 revival, a word uttered in utter shock and horror at the end of Act One, turns this picture of Southern beauty and charm into a snapshot of segregation-era ugliness. Did I mention that Neeck sings like a dream?
Neeck’s not-so-coincidental fellow L.A. newbie Patrick Cummings is a pitch-perfect Joe Cable, both as a man struggling with feelings his Philadelphia upbringing have not prepared him to feel and as the interpreter of such R&H classics as “Younger Than Springtime” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”
2010 National Tour vet Jodi Kimura once again steals scenes as Bloody Mary and sings “Bali Hai” with the best of them; Spencer Rowe’s Luther, though less comedic than some I’ve seen, is a fine mix of brio, warmth and cheek; and Cailan Rose couldn’t be a more gracefully enchanting Liat.
Best Lead Actor Scenie winner Marc Ginsburg radiates nerdy charm as Professor opposite his Scenie-winning College/University Star Of The Year scene partner Cole Cuomo, making his professional debut as a gusto-packed Stewpot.
Tom Shelton is a first-rate authority figure as Captain George Brackett, ably assisted by Devin Hennessy as Commander William Harbison. Gemma Pedersen and Brendan Balagot are pintsized charmers as Ngana and Jerome, but they and the other supposedly French-speaking players could have benefited from the hire of a professional dialect coach.
South Pacific’s male ensemble look like they really could be WWII sailors, making “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” not only a great vocal showcase for their talents but the honest-to-goodness lament of a bunch of horny sailors.
Zach Appel (Yeoman Herbert Quale), Jay Donnell (both sailor James Hayes and warmly avuncular De Becque servant Henry), Chaz Feuerstine (Johnny Noonan), Peter Hargrave (Thomas Hassinger), Chris Holly (Morton Wise), Andrew Huber (Radio Operator Bob McCaffrey, Matthew Kacergis (Lt. Buzz Adams), Ariel Neydavoud (Richard West), Melvin Ramsay (Kenneth Johnson), and Adrian Smith (James Hayes) comprise this stupendously talented bunch. (Director Langworth has wisely followed in revival director Sher’s footsteps by keeping his trio of African-American sailors at a certain distance from their white counterparts as might be expected in the then segregated US Armed Forces.)
Then there are the WAVES, Nellie’s best girlfriends (and her backup singers), the terrifically talented Juliana Jurenas (Ensign Connie Walewska), Katie McConaughy (Ensign Betty Jacobs), Natalie MacDonald (Ensign Bessie Mae Sue Ellie Yaeger), Katharine Kelly McDonough (Ensign Dinah Murphy), Amber-Sky Skipps (Lt. Genevieve Marshal), and Nikki Spies (Ensign Cora McRae). (That each and every sailor and sailorette has a first and last name is borne out in performances the furthest thing from cookie-cutter, with Skipps meriting bonus points for her koi-ball juggling.)
As choreographer, Langworth makes each and every ensemble number a standout, with extra credit for a delightfully imaginative and terrifically performed “Thanksgiving Follies.”
Costume designer Karen St. Pierre deserves top marks for her period male-and-female Navy, Tonkinese, and evening wear (costumes courtesy of Upland’s The Theatre Company) as do sound designer Jonathan Damacion and properties designer Anna Mantz. Period wigs give each WAVE her own distinctive look, though Neeck’s shellacked do may well be one of the least attractive Nellie wigs ever.
Kevin Clowes is technical director. Shawn Pryby is stage manager and Art Brickman assistant stage manager.
No matter how many times you’ve seen South Pacific, you’ll find much to savor in this latest big-stage revival. And if you’re lucky enough to be a South Pacific virgin, simply sit back and be overwhelmed by a justifiably lauded musical theater classic done just right.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
February 14, 2105
Photos: Caught in the Moment Photography