No matter how many times you’ve seen Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific (I myself am at nine productions and counting), you might just feel you’re experiencing it for the first time ever at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, so thrillingly performed and gorgeously designed is this 69th-anniversary McCoy Rigby Entertainment revival.

 With not one but two timeless love stories (book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, from James A. Michener’s Pulitzer-prize winning Tales Of The South Pacific), hummable melodies and astute lyrics, a richly exotic setting, an eventful WWII time frame, delightful bits of comic relief, and perhaps most importantly, a far ahead-of-its-time examination of the racial prejudices so deeply ingrained in mid-20th Century America, 1949’s South Pacific stands tall amongst the R&H oeuvre.

To begin with, it dares to open, not with the showgirls and chorus boys of musical comedies before it, but with an extended dialog-and-song sequence between U.S. Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush (Stephanie Renee Wall) and expatriate French planter Emile de Becque (John Cudia) as they fall 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,” a pair of bona fide showstoppers, after which we’re back in dramatic territory with the Navy’s request that de Becque help them on a daring secret mission that could easily cost him his life.

 And speaking of daring, how many musicals’ last twenty-plus minutes get transformed into an edge-of-your-seat straight play with only some instrumental underscoring and couple of very brief reprises?

When you talk about revolutionary Broadway shows, South Pacific tops the list, and under Glenn Casale’s inspired direction, La Mirada Theatre/McCoy Rigby revival does it proud.

 Leading lady Wall has been wonderful before (as Elle in Legally Blonde, Clara in The Light In The Piazza, and Louise in Gypsy, to name just three roles in which she has dazzled), but here she is simply magnificent, vanishing into Nellie’s “carefully taught” Little Rock skin while lighting up the stage with her own trademark brand of vivacity and charm, singing up a storm, and emoting with gut-wrenching power when facing the potential of devastating loss.

 Matching Wall every step of the way, Cudia looks like no Emile before him, his French-rock-star shoulder-length locks and sexy goatee making him even more of an outsider among shaved-and-shorn sailors. Not only that, but his Phantom-meets-Jean Valjean pipes (he’s the only actor ever to have played both on Broadway) make “Some Enchanted Evening” soar, and being on the very young side of “middle aged,” his chemistry with Wall’s Nellie sizzles like nobody’s business.

Jodi Kimura’s Blood Mary is not only a ball of Tonkanese fire, her “Bali Hai” is one for the ages as the South Pacific National Tour vet milks every laugh from lines like “Stingy bastard!”, then unleashes hell on anyone who dares reject her daughter,

 the exquisitely graceful Hajin Cho romantically paired opposite cute, high-note-hitting Matt Rosell, who makes “Carefully Taught” a dramatic vocal standout.

 L.A.’s most versatile musical theater superstar Jeff Skowron reinvents comic relief champion Luther Billis as he did Cabaret’s Emcee, receiving topnotch support from fellow sailors

 Richard Bulda (Seebee Morton Wise, and a warmly avuncular Henry), Justin Cowden (Private Darrell “Doe Doe” Dean), Marc Ginsburg (Stewpot), Adam Lendermon (radio operator Bob McCaffrey), Dino Nicandros (Lt. Buzz Adams, Shore Patrolman), Jake Saenz (Seaman Tom O’Brien), Brian Steven Shaw (Seaman Eustis Carmichael), and Shannon Stoeke (Professor), who like their female counterparts

 Kim Arnett (Ensign Dinah Murphy), Brittany Bentley (Ensign Genevieve Martin), Caitlyn Calfas (Ensign Rita Adams), Carolyn Lupin (Lt. J.G. Sue Yaeger), Katie Perry (Ensign Cora MacRae), and Alissa Tucker (Ensign Bessie Noonan) sing and dance up a storm while creating clearly delineated characters and not the nameless “ensemble” a lesser production might serve up.

 Choreographer Peggy Hickey scores sky-high marks for the hyper-masculine “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing LIke A Dame” and for the bright and bouncy “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “A Wonderful Guy,” with some seductive Tonkanese and exuberant ballroom dance moves thrown in along the way.

Completing South Pacific’s all-around magnificent cast are Michael Rothhaar’s blustery Captain George Brackett, Brent Schindele’s by-the-book Cmdr. William Harbison, and pint-sized charmers Lucas Jaye and Araceli Prasarttongosoth as Jerome and Ngana.

Sets by Robert Kovach and costumes by Mary Folino, first seen at Philadelphia’s Walnut Theatre a couple years back, give this South Pacific a saturated tropical color look that is particularly stunning as lit with vibrancy and flair by Jared A. Sayeg.

 Design kudos go too to Joel Markus’s properties, EB Bohks’s hair, wigs, and makeup (special snaps for Nellie’s “Wash That Man” wig), and Julie Ferrin’s crystal clear sound design (and some neat reverb effects for “Bali Hai,), the entire cast vocalizing under orchestra conductor Brent Crayon’s expert musical direction.

Casting is by Julia Flores. John W. Calder, III is production stage manager and David Jordan Nestor is assistant stage manager. Michael Roman is technical director.

Naysayers may aver that South Pacific has been done to death, but like its fellow mid-century Golden Age classics, it’s for good reason(s) it gets revived and revived and revived. At La Mirada Theatre, the words “Younger Than Springtime” have rarely been more apt.

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La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.

–Steven Stanley
April 21, 2018
Photos: Michael Lamont, Austin Bauman

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