Updated: Jun 20
Bloody Mary : (giving a shrunken head to Lt. Cable) “You like I give you, free!”
Luther Billis : “Free? You never gave me anything free!”
Bloody Mary : “You no sexy like lieu-tellen”
“South Pacific,” a 1949 musical with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, draws from James A. Michener’s searing novel, “Tales of the South Pacific,” weaving together characters and elements from several of its stories into a single plotline.
For a long time, Rodgers and Hammerstein's “South Pacific” had the reputation of being, in the words of one of Nellie Forbush's songs, as "corny as Kansas in August," but not since Bartlett Sher's sensitive and soaring 2008 revival of the Pultizer Prize-winning musical at New York's Lincoln Center Theatre. The reawakened production has since lost little of its beauty or power, dazzling stages across the country.
And no place is that more apparent than with the latest resurgence from JD Theatricals @ The Attic, currently bringing this classic musical to life through April 20th. Director/Music Director Nathaniel Brown and Choreographer Maurine Russell, along with producer Kathy Paladino, are at the top of their game making “South Pacific” an exhilarating, timeless delight.
The original production featured Mary Martin and marked the Broadway debut of Metropolitan Opera basso Ezio Pinza. It opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949 and ran for 1,925 performances. The show was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won all of them, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Libretto. It was the only musical production ever to win all four Tony Awards for acting. The 1958 film version, one of the most romantic musicals ever made, featured Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie and Rosanno Brazzi as Emile.
Led by Brianne Pantalone at the Attic as a charming, understated Ensign Nellie Forbush, the cast has top-notch voices, but also are serious actors. Taylor Cambell’s conflicted Lieutenant Cable - who is, indeed, in the words of Bloody Mary ("Hey Luetelant! You saxy man!”), a stand-out, while baritone Brian McFadden’s Emile DeBecque comes to full bloom when he delivers his operatic, deeply moving account of “This Nearly was Mine.”
Set on a small island held by the Americans in the middle of the Second World War, "South Pacific" has one of Richard Rodgers's most unforgettable scores. Songs including “Honey Bun,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair,” “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame,” and “Younger Than Springtime” are just a few of the thrilling numbers. It takes quality voices to give life to such songs and this talented cast certainly delivers, unquestionably. There’s also a reason “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Hai” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” are lingering classics. They’re harmonically perfect. As long as you disregard some of the lyrics (which range from heteronormative to slightly misogynistic, sometimes in the same song), you’ll never hear anything more beautiful."
Two love affairs are chronicled. The first involves Marine Lt. Joe Cable, who we just met, and Liat, a young Polynesian girl (Elizabeth Henderson), exploring the young lieutenant’s fears of the social consequences should he marry his uncomfortably young Asian sweetheart. Cable doesn't whitewash the wonderful, but undeniably creepy song “Younger than Springtime,” because, deep inside, he can't imagine ever bringing her back to Philadelphia.
The second revolves around Nellie, a Navy nurse from Little Rock, and Emile, the middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner with whom she falls in love with one enchanted evening, but struggles to accept his half-Polynesian children from a previous marriage. The only language they share, is love.
The musical opens during a low-spirited moment during the war just before the momentum decisively swung in the Allies' favor. Nellie is complaining about how everyone around her believes it is the "end of the world" and "the human race is falling on its face." When trying to enlist civilian Emile for a dangerous mission, Captain George Brackett (John Francis) tells him not only can't he promise that his action will do any good, he can't even promise him a better world if the Allies win. The dubious plot explores the paradoxes of the Americans ostensibly fighting for the belief that "all men are created equal," a credo Emile quotes in order to prove which side he is on, and yet he is somehow unable to accept people with a different skin color as an equal at all.
Cable and DeBecque both go on a dangerous mission behind Japanese lines from which only one of them returns. There's an air of desperation about Mr. McFadden's DeBecque, the sense that this is a man who knows Nellie represents his one last shot at love. No Nellie means eternal loneliness. He dives deep into his own decay, going off on a likely suicide mission with Lt. Cable, very intensely played here by Mr. Cambell, whom Director Brown clearly sees as a sensualist hopelessly lost in the fog of war."
The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most controversially in the lieutenant's song, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." What's great about Rodgers and Hammerstein's brand of liberal, populist entertainment is that it never judges its characters. Both Nellie and Lieutenant Cable can be heroes despite their prejudices. The only one who angrily and didactically chastises Cable for his racism is Cable himself, when he sings in self-disgust, "…You've got to be taught to hate and fear." The musical won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for its exploration on racial proclivity.
And although we still remain mired in racial conflict, today it has a very different face. Yet “South Pacific” is still captivating audiences, with its powerful love stories and jingoistic view of World War II, motored by a timeless score of familiar musical standards. The cast is perfection, the show’s technical support is flawless and, of course, the musical itself is an American treasure. Quite simply put, to miss this production is to miss out on one of the year’s very best pieces of theatre.
Supporting characters include the wisecracking petty officer, Luther, and the Tonkinese girl's mother, who help tie the stories together. Tyler Below’s wildly malapropism-prone Luther Billis, sailor and conman extraordinaire, meanwhile, is more than just comic relief - here's a working-class guy well aware that his military rank (and inability to seriously woo Nellie) largely has to do with his economic and educational background. His accent and mannerisms are perfect reflections of a rebellious sailor. He even manages to pull off wearing a coconut bikini.
Of course, he forms the closest bond with Bloody Mary (Judy Mina-Ballard) - the Polynesian merchant who's trying to find her daughter a rich husband. “You like?”- She's quite the operator herself, Bloody Mary, and more than a match for Luther. Mary is causing an "economic revolution" on the island, because she pays the locals more to make souvenirs for the soldiers than they earn working on the plantations.
Without ever being heavy-handed about it, Director Brown’s detailed production intelligently mines the simmering racial and class tensions among the troops stationed in the South Pacific to contextualize the main conflicts, reminding us that, though there were experiments with desegregation during the Second World War, particularly in the Navy, president Harry S. Truman didn't order the integration of the armed forces until 1948.
Costumes were authentically consistent with visual unity (Susan Gerardi / Gordon Buckley). The set fused the disparate elements, concept, performance, sound (Brian Robrecht / Terry Cowley), design and lighting (both by Jim Huffman), into a seamless whole. The Stage Manager (Noelle Howe) expertly coordinated the production in toto.
The supporting cast excelled throughout their roles: Harbison is Gordon Buckley, Marcelle is Sherilyn Classen, the professor is played by Ian Decock. Dinah is Gemma Donofrio, Ngana is depicted by Olivia Draffen, the nurse is portrayed by Taylor Herbel. Ed Mauss plays Stewpot (quite a character), Henry is Minquan Nguyen, Nurse MacGregor is Diana Ranck, and other nurses are played by Bridget Rago, Carly Taylor and Alexandra Walsh. Jerome is Matthew Henderson and Nellie is Sarah Schalberger. The Ensemble includes Devlyn Al-Imam, Anthony Altman, Rob Bergman, Max Espino and Troy Ozuna.
South Pacific continues at JD Theatricals @ Attic Community Theatre until April 20th with only six performances left! This show is Highly Recommended! Tickets may be purchased at https://attictheater.yapsody.com/event/index/338806/south-pacific