Michael L. Quintos
- Associate Los Angeles Critic
Armed with a grand, sweeping songbook from the masters of classic musical theater Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and a romantic, progressive-for-its-time book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, it is difficult not to be continually enchanted by SOUTH PACIFIC, the groundbreaking 1949 stage musical based on James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Even better… sandwiched between timeless memorable songs, intensely romantic interludes, and cheeky, comedic banter is the show's surprisingly candid exploration of race relations—a topic that is, of course, still very much top-of-mind in today's seemingly more divided world.
Even now, almost 70 years later, this surprisingly well-meaning, forward-thinking musical appears quite ahead of its time, as it shows how its characters grapple with this heavy themes in a very open and honest way, allowing them to easily resonate with today's modern audiences, no matter how "woke" they may be. With such important ideological stakes in mind, when a production of this musical presents its material well and in the best possible light, you're almost always guaranteed a show that can still pack an emotional wallop while entertaining you at the same time.
Such is the case with McCoy Rigby Entertainment's irresistibly appealing new production of SOUTH PACIFIC, now currently on stage at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through May 13, 2018. Featuring Broadway-caliber visuals and excellent, ovation-worthy cast performances, director Glenn Casale has thoughtfully staged a tradition-leaning production that feels honorably nostalgic and classically-driven, yet is still fully engaging for 21st century theatergoers.
A pleasing blend of song, story, and morale-heavy history lesson, this enjoyably old-school musical—set during World War II on a chain of islands in the middle of the South Pacific temporarily overtaken by American servicemen—provides a reliable, audience-tested canvas for musical theater artisans to show off their artistic skillsets.
On one end, musical director Brent Crayon leads a superb, huge-sounding orchestra to perform this show's lush, iconic score—which includes many memorable showtune staples such as "Some Enchanted Evening," "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," "Bali Ha'i," and "A Wonderful Guy"—that swells wonderfully throughout its two acts. On the other end, choreographer Peggy Hickey provides the show's energetic, athletic cast plenty of dynamic reasons to swing, sway, and leap for joy—offering the audience an exciting hybrid of ballet, modern dance, and theatrical styles.
Elsewhere, the production is surrounded by dazzling visuals, supplied by Robert Kovach's colorful, eye-popping tropical scenic designs that are enhanced by Jared A. Sayeg's atmospheric lighting—all of which help transport the audience to a different, paradise-like world. Mary Folino's well-curated, era-specific costumes coupled with EB Bohks' wig and makeup design help sell the overall illusion, while Julie Ferrin's soundscapes easily envelope the theater within this unique environment.
And smack dab in the middle, the production features an ensemble of incredibly talented performers that sing, dance, and, yes, act this musical's criss-crossing tales of war, romance, and culture clashes to vivid life.
Chief among the bunch are the show's impressive, vocally-blessed leads, John Cudia and Stephanie Renee Wall, who together play SOUTH PACIFIC's romantic nucleus, French plantation owner Emile de Becque and U.S. Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush, respectively. These two fine actors provide robust main performances as a pair of star-crossed paramours brought together by geographic circumstance and a strong mutual attraction—despite coming from very different home turfs and societal ideologies (particularly with the subject of race, which becomes an area of overblown contention between them as they become closer). Their characters fall in love quickly but then continue to struggle with outside forces that threaten their relationship's stability.
Wall's perfect Southern drawl (by way of Little Rock, Arkansas) and her richly nuanced vocal cadence fit her complex character's expected mold well and her rapport with Cudia's dashing mystery man is quite palpable right from its endearing start to its emotional climax. For his part, Cudia does a great job of balancing his character's romantic vulnerability with his easygoing self-confidence. And when he sings of aching romance in "Some Enchanted Evening" and, later, with "This Nearly Was Mine," you can genuinely hear the yearning in his beautiful operatic voice echo to the rafters.
What I love about a classic musical like SOUTH PACIFIC is its way of reminding you of how traditional book musicals used to be: a seamless blend of opera and theater, where legit classical voices can occupy the same footprint as those trained in dramatic or comedic singing. This production populates itself with actors that fulfill both prerequisites.
Other excellent supporting performances worth noting include the terrific Jodi Kimura as scene-stealing Bloody Mary, the island's amusingly colorful but sharp go-to tradeswoman; the reliably excellent Jeff Skowron as enterprising busybody Luther Billis, who not only provides the island's best creative services but also most of the show's most comical moments; and there's swoon-worthy Matt Rosell as Lt. Joseph Cable, a handsome young marine who unexpectedly falls in love with a local island girl despite its very taboo ramifications. Rounding out the standout supporting cast are Michael Rothhaar as Captain George Brackett, the ornery military man in charge of overseeing operations on this island chain; Brent Schindele as Commander William Harbison, Captain Brackett's right hand man and chief adviser; and, finally, Mark Ginsburg as "Stewpot" and Shannon Stoeke as "the Professor" a couple of comical Seabees that assist Billis in his many entrepreneurial ventures on the island.
These admirable supporting players—alongside the rest of this production's outstanding, very enthusiastic ensemble cast—all certainly aid in elevating this new local iteration of this copiously-produced musical to easily stand out amongst the litany of other SOUTH PACIFIC productions.
What I did notice here, though, is that Casale's version seems more streamlined and compact. Previous productions I have personally experienced of this musical seem to be bursting at the seams in ensemble members (not to mention having almost 30 orchestra players in the pit). This time around, the story seems presented with less of a chaotic hubbub, particularly in "larger" production numbers such as "There is Nothing Like A Dame," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," or at the Thanksgiving variety show. Here, the musical manages to achieve the same feeling and attitude and overall grandness with seemingly fewer actors on stage.
The surprise drawback? Part of me was hoping for lots more diversity, especially since the musical itself—set in the exotic Pacific Islands—has been pre-designed to, perhaps, feature more people of color than your typical, average musical. While it certainly doesn't detract or impede the enjoyment of the show overall, I was momentarily befuddled with the sight of a handful of actors draped in voluminous black wigs as a means to disguise them as background island natives at Bali Ha'i. Sure, the scenes lasted merely minutes of stage time, but it was enough for me to notice the albeit minor side-effect of this production's tighter machinations.
Still, the sight of those black wigs were quickly erased thanks to the scene that follows immediately after, which showcases the instant romance that blossoms between Rosell's Lt. Cable and French-speaking native Tonkinese girl Liat, played by the gorgeous Hajin Cho. This undeniably romantic scene—just as powerful a scene to witness today as it must have been back in this musical's original, Tony Award-winning run on Broadway almost 70 years ago—takes the audience right to the heart of this show's overarching theme.
And that overarching theme—allowing love to win over hate, fear, and bigotry—isn't something SOUTH PACIFIC shies away from, which is still a remarkable thing to think about considering when this musical was birthed. This unwavering progressive point-of-view nonchalantly exists as a complimentary aspect of the musical's deep romanticism, which makes a strong case in favor of ditching antiquated views about race, especially when it becomes an impediment to attaining true love.
But, actually, the musical's most powerful stance against racism is never more evident than in Cable's thought-provoking "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," which for me not only beautifully decodes how people learn to have prejudiced views rather than be born with them, it also demonstrates why this fiery song's words still rank among musical theatre's best written lyrics ever.
"You've got to be taught to be afraid,
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught."
Here, Rodgers and Hammerstein asks the audience to truly look at themselves and wonder—where does racial bias come from? Because those feelings don't naturally exist once we're born.
Racism doesn't just exist in SOUTH PACIFIC to impede romances, it is also present in multiple subtle scenes of micro-aggression. They are most displayed in how the Americans—essentially uninvited invaders on these islands—treat the locals with an air of superiority.
More obvious is the way the American service men openly mock Bloody Mary and her thick accent and broken English, even though they claim she's "the girl [we] love." While, sure, they somewhat adore her at the same time, they are still secure in the notion that these "savage" islanders are beneath them in intelligence and worldly knowledge, and therefore worthy of taking advantage of or swindling.
But the joke's on them: Bloody Mary is a savvy marketing genius, able to not only sell her wares as unique "souvenirs" but she's also able to convince Lt. Cable that her daughter Liat is a prize to love, and by extension, worthy of his hand in marriage.
Yes, the divisiveness is there, if subtler than you'd expect. Even Ensign Forbush has difficulty concealing her feeling a bit ill at the thought of her beau Emile once finding a local Tonkinese girl attractive enough to bed and bear his children. Thankfully, her feelings on the matter evolved over time (though, c'mon, gurrrlll, really? You couldn't have come to this realization before Emile had to go off on a suicide mission?!)
And therein lies the show's ultimate goal: to open hearts and minds, and to show that having such biased sentiments can be outgrown. Without being too preachy about it, SOUTH PACIFIC allows us all to witness deep, richly flawed, but relatable characters struggle with the demons of societal demands that goes against what is truly in their hearts, despite what they've been "carefully taught."
One could only hope that seeing such lessons unfold on stage can follow us home long after the curtain has fallen.
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Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production of SOUTH PACIFIC by Michael Lamont and Austin Bauman.
The McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of SOUTH PACIFIC continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through Sunday, May 13, 2018. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.