Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of Reel to Reel
The plot was based on stories from James Michener's book, "Tales of the South Pacific," intentionally emphasizing and enhancing the issue of racism. They gave us not one, but two tales of romance interrupted by prejudice, showing a cultural phenomenon rather than an individual failing. Ensign Nellie Forbush (Heather Buck) hails from Little Rock, Arkansas, having enlisted to make a difference and see the world. Having landed on a remote Pacific island waiting for the war with Japan to heat up, she falls head over heels for a local plantation owner, Frenchman Emile de Becque (William O'Neill), even though they seem worlds apart. He's older, wealthy, and with a shady past, and she's a spunky small-town girl, unsophisticated and bold. But fate has brought them together, and Emile makes his intentions clear as he entertains Nellie at his hilltop mansion, regaling her with "Some Enchanted Evening."
Back at the island base, Marines, Seabees, and nurses wait for action and orders, biding their time as best they can. Luther Billis (Rusty Thompson) tries to make a little dough competing with local businesswoman "Bloody Mary" (Elsa Fulton), selling grass skirts and hand-made trinkets. The men lament the shortage of available women ("There's Nothing Like a Dame"). When Lieutenant Joe Cable (James Raasch) arrives on a special mission, Bloody Mary entices him to visit a mystical isle called "Bali Ha'i."
The action unfolds in layers: Nellie equivocates in "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," then relents in "A Wonderful Guy." Joe falls in love with Bloody Mary's daughter, Liat (Maya Babow), and hails her "Younger Than Springtime." But when Nellie discovers that Emile is a widower with two "half-breed" young children from a marriage to a Polynesian woman, and Joe is urged to marry Liat, both reveal their prejudices. Joe's brief but pithy song in act two, "You've Got to Be Taught," contains the punch the authors intendedwhen Hammerstein was pushed to cut the song for its controversy, he exclaimed, "But that's what the show is about!"
Still, it's a musical, destined for a happier outcome and the message that minds and hearts can be educated beyond prejudice. The enduring theme persuades with gorgeous song, a patriotic context, and relatively gentle politics. That isn't to say there aren't dated elements that are easy to find and complain abouta Western-centric perspective, a simplistic view of racism, a portrayal of underage prostitution in the Liat-Joe pairingbut if one accepts the show as a memento, a musical love letter from America's past that still has important things to say for the present, then perhaps one can overlook the embedded relics.
In that context, Spreckels' production does the show justice, with a talented cast and requisite scenic elements. Buck and O'Neill lead the show with their terrific vocals and lovable characterizations. O'Neill's velvet bass sends the audience swooning, and Buck's got the spirited belting needed for Nellie. Raasch delivers a beautifully clear lyric tenor, and a believable transition when he realizes what he's lost. Fulton is a wonderfully comic Bloody Mary, and Thompson has fun with the hapless but inventive Billis. The ensembles of men and women are tuneful and sprightly. Jeff Cote as Captain Brackett and David Templeton as Commander Harbison supply a Mutt-and-Jeff comic turn as well as militaristic ambience.
Scenic design by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen aims to minimize set, but the large wagons, although attractive, take time to position and slow the action. The side projections tend to distract and seem unnecessary. Music direction by Nancy Hayashibara elicits professional quality from her orchestra as well as performers. Lighting by Eddy Hansen supplies bright island sun and magical moonlight. Costuming by Pamela Enz and Pat Fitzgerald mostly evokes the period and place, but suffers some odd choices. Joseph Favalora's choreography, while adequate, is surprisingly tame and sometimes disappointing in ensemble numbers, and some of the staging by directors Jim Coleman and Sheri Lee Miller feels too static and clichéd. The program details circumstances that affected the rehearsal process, so perhaps this explains some of the shortcomings, which overall are minorit's a big show, with big challenges even without any interference. Thankfully, it holds together with appealing performances and good attention to the show's themes.
The buzz in the house recommends it to lovers of musicalsif it's been a while since you've seen it, or if you've never seen this icon of American musical theatre, you owe it to yourself to see the talent on stage and remember why these songs have become much-loved standards.
South Pacific, through February 25, 2018, by Spreckels Theatre Company, at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park CA. Tickets $16.00-$28.00 can be purchased online at www.spreckelsonline.com or by phone at 707-588-3400.