Despite having first debuted on Broadway nearly seventy years ago, Rodgers And Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic “South Pacific” continues to feel ‘younger than springtime’ thanks to the beguiling new production currently at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in La Mirada California. Based on James A. Michener’s ground-breaking novel, “Tales Of The South Pacific”, the unforgettable score is by Theater legends Richard Rodgers (who provided the music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (who furnished the lyrics—over and above co-writing the book along with Joshua Logan, who directed the original production back in 1949.) Co-Produced by McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, Glenn Casale is the Director for this new mounting, while the Choreography is by Peggy Hickey with Musical Direction by Brent Crayon.
Arguably one of the best theatrical romances of all time, “South Pacific” boasts one of the most elegant and eloquent scores in Musical Theater history, with Hammerstein and Logan’s script giving rise to one awesome song right on top of another. Moreover, with the passing of the years virtually each and every song heard here has become a bona fide American “standard”. Among them are: “Some Enchanted Evening”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, “There Is Nothing Like A Dame”, “Younger Than Springtime”, “Only A Cockeyed Optimist”, “Bali Ha’i”, “Happy Talk”, “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy”–and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”. The issue of racial prejudice—and most pointedly American racism–as outlined in this latter descant has long been considered central to the story, and word has it that when the musical was in its ‘Pre-Broadway’ out-of-town tryouts miscellaneous groups tried to pressure the producing team to cut the number entirely. Furthermore, it’s reported that when Oscar Hammerstein was informed about such mounting pressure, the lyricist stood strong—asserting “That’s what the entire show is all about!” Then again, throughout, Hammerstein’s lyrics are remarkably beautiful and ornate (—even for him) and the show is all the more majestic thanks to each of them! Given recent headlines, the plot too, has undergone a significant change from ‘timeless’ to ‘timely’ with much of what was examined in 1949, (like issues of bigotry or the perils and tragedies of an encroaching war in general) being even more relevant today!
Most of the action centers on an American nurse by the name of “Ensign Nellie Forbush” who hails from Arkansas. Now stationed on an isolated South Pacific island in the thick of World War II, she falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner named “Emile DeBecque”. At the outset, their romance is smooth sailing until she meets his two mixed-race children from a previous relationship, causing her to struggle with her own innate prejudices. An equally potent subplot involves still another troubled romance, this time between a U.S. Marine lieutenant named “Joe Cable” and a young Tonkinese woman named “Liat”, which similarly delves into his fears of the social and familial repercussions should he marry his Asiatic lady-love. These two story-lines are also effectively intermingled through the auspices of a couple of key supporting characters (who offer some necessary comic relief to boot)—particularly a brash, opportunistic, but ultimately likeable and eventually even heroic (in spite of himself) Petty Officer named “Luther Billis”, and the Tonkinese girl’s bawdy mother, “Bloody Mary” (herself at the center of several first-rate production numbers!) Yet, much more than just about the everyday ‘ups and downs’ of your typical love affairs and seasoned with plenty of pretty and hummable songs, “South Pacific” dares to candidly explore deeper subjects (like Intolerance, Acceptance, Selflessness, Bravery and Loss, for example) making for some powerful drama as well.
Casale’s Direction takes full advantage of the myriad of textual strengths at hand, keeping the goings-on neatly flowing, but never overwhelmingly so, while refreshingly keeping the production focused and very close to the Broadway original–the way it was initially intended to be seen. Under Brent Crayon’s impeccable guidance, the overture is played with a pert and driving beat, giving us some idea as to the fast-paced undertakings to follow. Interestingly, Rogers and Hammerstein chose to forego any large production numbers to open the show, but once the time does come for such spectacles, momentous they certainly are! “Bloody Mary” is the first ‘big’ group endeavor in which the assembled “Seabees” pay homage to their favorite Island Denizen—a Tonkinese Peddler who’s always one step ahead of even the best or shrewdest of them! Ms. Hickey’s detail-savvy choreography even incorporates a rowdy “Hoe-Down-style” dance break into the proceedings. This is quickly followed by “Nothing Like A Dame” which rates as a bona-fide ‘Crowd Pleaser’ featuring some A-Plus group harmonizing. Shortly thereafter, it’s the ladies turn to impress with some “Gold-Medal” worthy chorale work of their own with “Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”. This then followed by some nice and nimble “Jitter-Bug” inspired moves, making this one an especially lively interval (not to mention yet another ‘Crowd Pleaser’ at the height of Act One.) Hickey also throws in a convivial little waltz amidst the group portion of “Wonderful Guy” also integrating some graceful Ballet exchanges before culminating in a nifty ‘daisy-chain’ that has all the nurses ‘celebrating’ “Nellie’s” newly ‘reignited’ love for “Emile”. This too ranks as another ‘Crowd Pl–uh, well, let’s just say the audience liked it a whole lot! The female ensemble also reveal even more—and in some ways, more striking– chorale work with the lush and euphoric “French and Native” reprise of “Bali Ha’i”, as “Cable” and “Billis” first arrive at the fabled island paradise, where Joe is soon to meet his new “Angel and Lover”, “Liat”. Act Two commences back on the base with a big “Thanksgiving Show” being performed for the troops, and this includes a dandy tap interlude performed by the nurses to get thing off to a feisty and fun start.
As “Ensign Nellie Forbush” (the Navy Nurse who, by her own admission is “Stuck like a Dope with a thing called Hope”) Stephanie Wall’s take is sort of akin to a cute-as-a-button ‘pixie’ with an incredible voice. In fact, her utter vibrance and energy might incline one to recall a young Sandy Duncan.
She also perceptively enlivens her characterization with a lilting Southern drawl (“Nellie’s” supposed to be from “Little Rock” ARK after all,) and YE-HAW! What a dynamic voice does this lass ever possess! This, she tidily dazzles with belting out her opening salvo, “Only A Cock-eyed Optimist” investing it with a more contemporary, “Nashville” feel. Wall also shines at the center of “Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, then generates melodic magic once more when leading “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy” (even if the song does occur kind of abruptly in the plot.) Starring opposite her is John Cudia, who himself is a major theatrical force to be reckoned with as “Emile DeBecque”, the French Planter turned Special Agent. (“Who is not running away from something?” he answers Nellie upon her asking why he came to the Island.) Charismatic with Matinee-Idol or Soap-Star good looks, his voice practically defines the term “thundering” here. His expert handling of the iconic “Some Enchanted Evening” is itself swiftly paced, but he adroitly gives it a steadily growing intensity that, by its conclusion, guarantees you WILL be experiencing chills of admiration and delight! After Intermission, his interpretation of the poignant “This Nearly Was Mine” is another musical ‘home-run’ for the Actor, vividly giving us this man “Emile” at his most desolate and very lowest point, and Cudia employs a deep and impactful vibrato to color all those magnificent ‘money’ notes such as only Richard Rodger could write them. Even greater occurs when Wall and Cudia join together–then it’s always a thoroughly enthralling event (—and in some cases, like their stirring reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening”, more impactful than the number’s first time around!)
Meanwhile, if there’s a genuine ‘revelation’ in the show, it comes in the person of Matt Rosell as Marine Lieutenant “Joe Cable”. Gifted with boyish good-look and a rich tenor voice, he’s as incredible a singer as he is expressive one, which he swiftly verifies with his quick reprise of “Bali Ha’i” as the scenes change. Toward the close of the first act, his near-operatic turn with the sumptuously romantic “Younger Than Springtime” is bound to give many attendees shivers of excitement upon hearing it. (This one, Ladies and Gents, was the unqualified “Show-Stopper” on Opening Night!) Rosell also electrifies in Act Two—giving a near-manic performance of “You’ve Got To Be Taught”—the thematic centerpiece of the entire production which, to further get his point across, he practically spits the lyrics out with suppressed rage, making the message even stronger. Jodi Kimura too, is similarly captivating–both to hear and see as the notorious “Bloody Mary”! Possibly one of the very best ‘character’ roles for an Actress in this or any musical, watching Kimura, it’s clear she knows exactly who this woman is and what honestly motivates her— mischievous and quick with the one-liners, these are just a front to mask deeper, more vital concerns. While hers is an already a strong character dramatically and comedically, she similarly provides “Mary” with an even stronger, more velvety voice reminiscent of the likes of such quintessential 1950’s era chanteuses Dinah Shore, Julie Wilson or Kaye Ballard! Her execution of “Bali Ha’i” is nothing short of breathtaking–crisp and clear, but retaining enough of an ethereal, dreamy quality that the lyrics positively require.
Post intermission, she officially kicks things off again with her interpretation of the classic “Happy Talk”. Taken at face value, this is merely a song about encouraging two new lovers to picture their intended (pleasurable) life with each other; however Kimura judiciously goes deeper and endows each blithe and bouncy line with just the right shade of underlying desperation—her “Liat” absolutely MUST marry Joe or face a far darker and bleaker fate. This elevates the tune’s stakes, transforming it from simply pleasant to something much more potent and poignant, and in the process, points toward just how sagacious Kimura’s entire performance as “Mary” truly is. Likewise, Hajin Cho also offers up laudable support as “Mary’s” daughter, “Liat”. Although what lines she has are all in French, she still evokes an aura of innocence and geniality that makes us want to see her happy with Cable (regardless of our knowledge that this won’t ever be.) This makes her character that much more effective. Cho also does an outstanding job performing a lithe and sensual interpretive dance as part of “Happy Talk” which, when taken in conjunction with Kimura’s heightened subtext, makes the whole number far more effective in its own right.
Once again, Jeff Skowron (last seen on “The La Mirada Theatre’s” stage as the sinister “Emcee” in McCoy Rigby’s much-hailed production of “Cabaret” earlier this year,) proves his stunning versatility as “Luther Billis”–the fast-talking smart-ass always on the look-out for a faster-buck or a way to ‘buck’ the system! A terrific mood-elevator within the more drama heavy second act, Skowron garners huge laughs toward the opening of the second act forking over some side-splitting “Hoochie-Kootchie” burlesque shtick while dolled up in Polynesian ‘pseudo-drag’ with his part in “Honey Bun” (complete with coconut-shells for a bikini top and an outrageous yellow ‘grass skirt’ for a wig!) True to the lyrics, here he really is: “A cookie who will cook you ‘til you’re done”! Michael Rothhaar also does an excellent job portraying Base-Commander, “Captain Brackett” (a.k.a. “Old Iron Belly” as the enlisted men have nicknamed him,) giving us a plus-sized ‘blunderbuss’ of a By-The-Book Military-Man whose bark AND bite are equally disagreeable. Granting that most of his stage-time requires him to be a more stolid and frankly at times, a more expeditionary persona, Rothhaar nonetheless manages to standout admirably over the course of his scenes—an ever present reminder that behind all the romantic exploits, there actually is a war going on. Toward the show’s final curtain, he even comes on being chauffeured in a miniature jeep, which not only comes as a complete and comical surprise, it’s also so clever, this is one entrance that’s definitely worth waiting for! Not to be overlooked by any means either are the festive contributions made by Araceli Prasarttongosoth and Lucas Jaye as “Emile’s” half-native children, “Ngana” and “Jerome” respectively—indeed, they playfully ‘launch’ the show with a light-hearted rendition of the dulcet childhood refrain, “Dites-Moi”, then charm with it all over again at the show’s conclusion.
Contrary to whatever the ornate verses of Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein may assert though, a production of this high-caliber does NOT get on by “floating’ in the sunshine…head stickin’ out from a low flyin’ cloud,” but rather thanks to its sublime technical elements. Punctuated by large, billowing Palm Trees framing either side of the stage, Robert Kovach’s spot-on Scenic Design serves as the perfect backdrop for all the various happenings to play out against, whether they involve a corrugated metal supply hut, a lush windswept plantation patio “High upon a hill” and overlooking the ocean, or of course, the mist-laden, otherworldly jungles of “Bali Ha’i” (–there’s even a ladies stall shower situated between two sand dunes!) Complimenting and illuminating all of Kovach’s locales is Jared A. Sayeg’s Lighting Design which at one point even uses a handful of slowly pulsating digital light-strings to convey the illusion of a trickling waterfall. By the same token, Julie Ferrin’s inventive Sound Design more than simply insures that each performer is heard loudly and clearly (even well into the back rows of “The La Mirada Theatre’s” substantial auditorium;) here and there, she also conjures a few subtle bits of ‘auditory’ Hocus-Pocus herself–such as adding an extra bit of reverb to “Mary’s” microphone during “Bali Ha’i”, to enhance the idea of Joe Cable’s being ‘transported in his imagination’ to the very place she’s crooning about. Mary Folino’s Costumes also never miss their mark—and in a few cases, even verge on incredible! Some of the more innovative examples of her stylistic talents include: the ‘home-made’ Hula Dress Luther Billis sports in the Thanksgiving show, “Bloody Mary’s” more ‘utilitarian’ over-sized men’s tunic and loose-fitting knee-breeches, or assorted strikingly hued sarongs glimpsed on that “Special Island” Mary sings the praises of.
“If you’ll excuse an expression I use—you’ll just love-you’ll just love-you’ll just LOVE this wonderful new production!” After ‘Previewing” on Friday, April 20th, “South Pacific” officially opened on Saturday, April 21st where it will play through Sunday, May 13th, 2018 at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd., in La Mirada CA. Showtimes are: Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8:00 PM; Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. There will be an ‘Open Captioned’ Performance on Saturday, May 5th at 2:00 PM and an ‘ASL-Interpreted’ Performance on Saturday, May 12th at 2:00 PM. Special “Talkbacks” with the cast and creative team will take place directly after the curtain-calls on Wednesday, April 25th and Wednesday, May 5th. Tickets may be obtained via phone by calling (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. To order on-line, visit http://www.lamiradatheatre.com. (Student Senior and Group discounts are also available.)
Production Stills By Michael Lamont And Austin Bauman, Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Glenn Casale, Peggy Hickey, Brent Crayon & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s 2018 Production Of “SOUTH PACIFIC” For Making This Story Possible.