Above: The seabees explore the exotic wonders in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Below, left: Luther Billis (Spencer Rowe) and Nellie (Alessa Neeck) perform “Honey Bun.” All images courtesy of Caught in the Moment Photography.
The lyrics in the above title come from the song Wonderful Guy, which is sung by the protagonist of Rogers & Hammerstein's South Pacific after realizing that she's fallen in love. The full lyric reads; “I'm as trite and as gay as a daisy in May, a cliché coming true!” The road to that realization isn't an easy one for Nellie Forbush, and her long standing prejudices don't stop their battle with her conflicted feelings after the song’s conclusion, in fact they rear their ugly heads even more wildly. While the song lasts, however, Nellie is unapologetic and charmingly self-aware in her unabashed state, relishing in the kind of joy many classic musicals wish to genuinely celebrate, but a rare few successfully do.
South Pacific's ability to find truth, joy, and three-dimensional depth in even its most lighthearted moments, turn its clichés into truths and its truths into songs, some of the best ever written for the American musical stage.
Luckily for Long Beach, the charismatic, deeply felt revival at Musical Theater West does the show's spirit far greater justice than its recent Broadway revival even dreamed of. It delivers a beautifully mounted feel-good musical that no one needs to feel guilty for enjoying.
South Pacific is based on James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of The South Pacific, and the musical went on to win the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for drama itself. Managing to strike a near perfect balance between populist musical tropes and a progressive, even subversive examination of racism and blind patriotism, South Pacific is in a class with very few other musicals of its or any other era. Its success lies not only in its ability to create three-dimensional characters and spin ones' perceptions on their ear, but also in its brilliant score which is equal parts prophetic ballads and the sort of feel good show-tunes that often seem too good spirited to be taken seriously in our irony-obsessed present day.
The self-awareness of songs like Wonderful Guy and the nearly watertight integration of the music into the narrative have been a key to South Pacific's graceful aging. Taken out of context, some of this material may make young, jaded eyes roll. Here however, in their natural habitat, they seem just as “normal as blueberry pie,” which maybe isn't THAT NORMAL or commonly found nowadays, but I know very few people who would turn up their noses to it.
Set on an unnamed island in the South Pacific during WWII, the main plot concerns a United States Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas named Nellie Forbush and her relationship with French expat turned plantation owner Emile de Becque. De Becque fled from his country after killing a man and fathers two children by a Polynesian woman who have continued living with him after their mother’s passing. Forbush has seen very little outside of Arkansas, and suddenly finding herself confronted with an entirely different landscape and culture than she knew back home, begins questioning the deeply instilled closed-mindedness of her upbringing. The greatest catalyst of her new found feelings of course stem from her falling in love Emile, who has likewise fallen for Nellie. As the war erupts around them they both find themselves changed by their circumstances and forced to make decisions that challenge not only their perceptions, but also the ways in which they will continue to live the rest of their lives.
Nellie (Alessa Neeck) is "in love with a wonderful guy."
For any of this to be convincing in a time when every major city has a Martian Luther King Jr. Blvd. and an awareness of the atrocities of racial injustice and violence is unavoidable, it is more necessary than ever to understand the passion and conflict that take over Miss Forbush's life. Without believing that her character is overcome with feelings of a life-changing magnitude, South Pacific would be lost to the history books. The recent Broadway revival took such a cold, literary approach to the material that it made her character seem superficial and finicky, focusing all its attention on how big its orchestra was and how polished its scenic design could be. Here, though the sets are handsome and the orchestra is still quite large, these elements are not made into spectacles worthy of their own attention. Instead, director and choreographer Joe Langworth shows focus and heart where the play needs it, refusing to sugarcoat the material and letting it take the time it needs to make its characters' conflicts resonate. He also has assembled an incredibly talented cast that is not only talented, but diverse and convincing on nearly all accords.
Spencer Rowe provides the perfect balance of buffoonery and thoughtfulness as Luther Billis, a Seabee stationed on the island. Rowe never misses Billis's laughs or rushes through his more thoughtful moments. He gives a well-seasoned and memorable performance.
Above: Bloody Mary (Jodi Kimura) entices Lt. Cable (Patrick Cummings ) to appreciate the wondrous beauty of Bali Ha’i. Below, right: Liat (Cailan Rose) and Lt. Cable (Patrick Cummings) share a tender moment.
As the feisty Polynesian entrepreneur the Seabees call “Bloody Mary,” Jodi Kimura totally kills it. Even as she plays into the more comedic and stereotypical qualities of her character there is always something more ferocious and thoughtful going on under the surface. When she sings Bali Ha'i in the first act, there was a moment where I nearly forgot the island was painted on a backdrop. When she sings Happy Talk in the second, it is so undeniably clear how desperately her character wants a better life for her daughter and herself that the song sounds brand new. Happy Talk is a brilliant exercise in subtext and all around I wished for Mary's role to be bigger than it was.
Patrick Cummings as Lieutenant Joe Cable sings his role well and looks good with his shirt off, but the tortured lust he feels at falling in love with Bloody Mary's daughter sounds more convincing sung than it looks watching it.
Christopher Carl is handsome and beautiful to listen to as Emile de Becque. Though he sometimes seems a bit stiff on the stage, he is unafraid to get goofy and light hearted when the part calls for it. It is always easy to follow in his intentions and his voice is perfectly suited to the role. When he physically interacts with Miss Forbush, you can almost see the sparks fly.
Speaking of Miss Forbush, Alessa Neeck totally blew my mind with her performance as the young nurse. Never have I seen a more believable interpretation of her character. As I stated before, the success of any production of South Pacific relies almost entirely on the plausibility of Nellie's emotional struggle with her racist upbringing and here that conflict is front and center. For an actress who seems to have played mostly younger ingénues, it was thrilling and even surprising to see her sink her teeth into Nellie Forbush. Not only is it clear to see the conflicts of her heart and mind but it is also clear to see why Emile falls so hopelessly in love with her. When she sings the aforementioned Wonderful Guy towards the later part of the first act, it is not merely an observation; it is an almost anarchically joyous moment of self-discovery, something she seems to have not even thought herself capable of till that very moment.
Aside from a few misguided sound effects of ocean waves and other environmental atmospherics, the technical elements were all on point, especially Karen St. Pierre's handsome period costumes. No one ever looked strange or awkward unless they were supposed to, which is a feat far greater than most people would imagine, especially in a show like this one.
Dennis Castellano's musical direction and conducting do Richard Rodgers' score great justice, and it is really a treat to hear this music played from a pit this full of instruments. Really, just hearing this music sound like this is worth the price of admission alone. It's not something you get to experience very often. The ensemble's voices and dancing are also uniformly excellent all around.
It is surprising that Joe Langworth’s direction feels so much freer and compassionate than Bartlett Sher's Broadway revival (for which he served as associate choreographer) did. Here the material feels freer in spirit, funnier, more tuned in to its subtexts and ultimately more romantic and passionate than South Pacific did when I saw it on Broadway in 2008. While his choreography here is good in a serviceable sort of way (this isn't a big DANCE musical) it is his nearly fool-proof direction that deserves the most attention. His characters always seem to know what they are talking about and more importantly, what they are singing about at all times. Songs arrive and depart naturally, and the actors seem confident with the material in ways I rarely see in big scale musicals nowadays. Yes, there are things stolen directly from the Sher revival but the tone here seems so much more alive that it honestly doesn't matter. In spite of a totally unnecessary audience-participation-encouraged rendition of The National Anthem at the top of act two which felt wildly out of place and awkwardly patriotic in a show I wouldn't necessarily call pro-American, in Langworth's hands South Pacific finds the rare respect the material deserves.
While musicals nearly always paint with broad strokes, the best of them speak through those universal calling cards to specific and inherent truths. Many a musical's most popular songs appear to be about one thing when heard on their own and take on a far deeper meaning when surrounded by their proper context. In great musicals, clichés can become truths and in this production of South Pacific those truths are quite numerous.