By Karen Isaacs
South Pacific is a sweeping, romantic musical. It takes guts for a small theater with limited seats, stage area, backstage area and budget to undertake such a project. Ivoryton Playhouse has taken the challenge and risen to it. While I will have a few criticisms, overall I must say “Bravo!”
In case you have never seen the show or movie — it is hard to believe but a number of the audience on the night I saw seemed to be unfamiliar with it — it is based on James Michener’s novel (more like a collection of interrelated short stories ) Tales from the South Pacific. The book tells of WWII in that region of the world. It won the Pulitzer as did the musical. The libretto or book of the musical was by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan who also directed the original production in 1949.
The main story is about the nurse Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, Arkansas, and her romance with the French planter Emile de Becque. Nellie is younger than de Becque who left France because he killed a man (in self-defense and for noble reasons) and has settled on these French islands for many years. To him, Nellie is a chance at last for true happiness. Nellie, on the other hand, left the confines of small town life — with its rules and gossip — to become a Navy nurse. She is adventurous and willing to take chances.
The side stories include the Seabee Luther Billis who is always getting into jams because he likes to stretch the rules. He is the entrepreneur on the island, doing laundry for the officers and nurses, trying to make and sell “native trinkets” and wanting to see the boar’s tooth ceremony on a neighboring — off-limits– island.
We also have the young, Princeton educated Lieutenant Joe Cable from a mainline Philadelphia family who falls in love with a Liat, a young native girl.
Cable is on the island to plan a spying mission — he hopes that he and de Becque will land on a nearby Japanese held island and report naval and air movements so that American pilots can pick them off.
As these plots intertwine, one of Hammerstein’s major themes emerges: why people are so unable to accept others unlike themselves. Cable knows that Liat would never be accepted in his upper middle class family. Nellie breaks off her romance when she realizes that Emile has two dark-skinned children whose mother was Polynesian.
The ending is properly romantic — there is one very happy ending and one that is almost tragic.
Into this mix, Rodgers and Hammerstein wove some of their most romantic songs — “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger than Springtime,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” — as well as up-beat songs – “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and some humorous ones — “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and “Honey Bun.”
So how is this production?
Let’s start with all the positives: scenic designer Daniel Nischan has managed to create the multiple sets in a way that are very flexible and easily changed: we have the hilltop terrace, the naval base, the island of Bali Hai, the Captain’s office and more. He included some nice projections of a moon for the ending scenes.
Add to that effective lighting by Marcus Abbott and costumes by Lenore Grunko. I might quibble at some of the colors but the styles were appropriate. So the production values are good.
Overall the performances are vocally very good. David Pittsinger who plays Emile is an opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera and played de Becque at Lincoln Center and on tour. His bass-baritone voice is warm and enunciation is excellent. He even manages an appropriate enough French accent. Adrianne Hicks is Nellie and she also can sing up a storm and maintain a passable southern accent. Other vocal standouts are Patricia Schuman, another opera singer, as Bloody Mary. As Lieutenant Cable, Peter Carrier’s voice could have more depth; his soaring love song “Younger Than Springtime” does not score as much as it should.
In addition the ensemble of Seabees, nurses and others are very good. Emile’s two children — played by Kalya Coiguhoun and Dylan Huber — project well.
So if the production values and vocal performances are good, what are my quibbles? One has to do with chemistry. Neither romantic pair creates that feeling of chemistry. (For Pittsinger as Emile and it might difficult with his wife playing Bloody Mary). When each couple falls in love and kisses — the audience doesn’t gasp. They don’t quite buy it. So while the lines are said competently, you don’t get the sense of reality — it is too much “acting.” This goes for most of the cast. Hicks as Nellie also falls into some “cutesy” mannerisms that don’t seem to fit.
The exceptions are William Selby as Billis; you really believe him.
David Edwards as director and choreographer has done a good job on the limited Ivoryton stage though he makes minimal use of the two sides. His use of the center aisle is effective. Michael McAssey as music director leads the seven piece orchestra. Because the orchestra is hidden somewhere back stage, the overture sounded muffled and almost recorded. It might have been better to omit most of the overture and just plunge into the opening scene.
Overall, this is an very good production that is well worth the time and cost to see. After all, South Pacific is one of the classics of American musical theater and it is getting a production worthy of it.
South Pacific is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 102 Main Street, Ivoryton, through July 26. For tickets call 860-767-7318 or ivorytonplayhouse.org.