CEDAR CITY — I will likely be exiled from the United States after my pronouncements in this review for two reasons. The first: this was my first time seeing South Pacific live on stage, ever. The second is probably a sin, only whispered in dark allies after late-night cast parties or early-evening sonnet readings.
I didn’t like it.
As I patiently await the crowds of angry musical theater lovers armed with pitchforks and torches to appear at my door, I will entertain as to why.
South Pacific is the quintessential American musical. Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and based on a collection of short stories by James A. Michener, the play opened on Broadway in 1949 and won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The original play and its revivals have won scores of Tony Awards and its tunes are an engrained part of American culture.
This, among other reasons, is why I walked into the Randall L. Jones Auditorium at the Utah Shakespeare Festival with high expectations. Finally, I would get to hear what’s the big deal about “Bali Ha’i.” Understand why the SeaBees complain that they “got no dames.” Be enchanted by “Some Enchanted Evening,” sung by a handsome bass.
Were this my personal blog, this is where I would place an “I am disappoint” meme image, because that’s exactly how I feel.
The story centers around the relationship between Ensign Nellie Forbush (Allie Babich), a U.S. Navy nurse serving in the Pacific theater during World War II, and Emile De Becque (Michael Scott Harris), a wealthy French plantation owner who lives on the island where Nellie is stationed. After having met at an officer’s ball, Emile confesses his love to Nellie, which surprises her; she doesn’t think she’s sophisticated enough for him. However, neither is sure that the other wants to pursue the relationship, since they appear to have little in common.
South Pacific was very controversial at the time it premiered because it addressed the issue of racism directly in the plot. At the end of the first act, Nellie cannot consolidate in her mind that Emile has fathered children with a Polynesian woman, and she runs away from Emile.
The themes that were controversial back then seem blasé now. Interracial couples are everywhere in America. Culturally, we’re even beyond that cultural taboo, as same-sex couples can marry in all 50 states. I respect the script as part of American theatrical and cultural history and recognize its influence. But the script is showing its age. That being said, this show (directed by Brad Carroll) had good, classic moments, even though there are some aspects that need improvement.
Scenic designer Jack Magaw’s simple, serene tropical landscape provided the perfect backdrop for the story. The period costumes (by K. L. Alberts) and props were so detailed and authentic that I imagined the scenes being very similar to those that audiences of the original shows saw on stage. The scene changes were fast-paced and ingenious; the famous on-stage working shower fascinated me and had me thinking about how it was engineered so that no water fell onto the stage.
Babich portrays Nellie as a woman who’s innocent, curious, and full of wonderment. Her Nellie realizes that, without the war, she probably would not have left the limits of “hick” Little Rock, Arkansas. Babich’s charisma was contagious in her performances of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “A Wonderful Guy,” which she led with her beautiful voice. Her “Honey Bun” was really funny and cute, and she had great rapport with Aaron Galligan-Stierle, who played Luther Billis. One problem I had with Babich’s performance was that I could tell that sometimes she subtly mouthed other character’s lines. Had I been in the upper rows, I probably would not have noticed, but from the fifth row I could see it very well.
Harris’s portrayal of Emile de Becque was disappointing. There is something about the character Emile de Becque that shows the audience why Nellie would be attracted to him—Emile is an older, exotic gentleman, who exudes masculinity and has firm convictions. I got none of that from Harris’s characterization. From the beginning of the play, I could not understand why Nellie would like Emile at all, and I’m not sure if that issue was a result of the portrayal or the direction. When Emile’s character first walked on stage, I thought he was another servant and not the owner of the plantation. The lack of chemistry between Emile and Nellie did not help improve my opinion either. Babich did not seem comfortable around Harris until their duet, “This is How it Feels,” and their first on-stage kiss was awkward. Despite the lack of chemistry with his leading lady, Harris is a decent bass and performed his songs well. His character’s affections towards his children and his efforts to woo Nellie were sincere.
Nigel Huckle and Samantha Ma had a more believable relationship onstage as Lt. Joseph Cable and Liat, respectively. The language barrier between the two characters made their exchanges honestly awkward, yet cute. I could see the relationship between the two characters bloom at first sight. Huckle’s voice lovingly expresses his character’s affections for Liat in “Younger than Springtime,” and regretfully explains to Emile, in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” Nellie’s and his reservations regarding their love lives, and how they would not work outside of the island.
The Liat-Lt. Cable relationship showcases another problem I have with the script. This relationship horrifies me because Liat is a minor and Cable is in his 20’s. Bloody Mary (Christine Jugueta) threw her underage daughter at the Marine in order to marry her off, and indirectly, to make some money. This situation should have appalled audiences in the 1940’s, but what was shocking at the time was that Liat and Cable were of different races.
Audience members who grew up loving the songs from South Pacific will not be disappointed. The orchestra (conducted by Michael Gribbin) was so good that I forgot that I was listening to a live orchestra until the very end. The ensemble cast was harmonious, and they performed Christine Kellogg‘s choreography well. My favorite parts of this play were the scenes where the ensemble performed together: “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Opening Dance,” and “Honey Bun.” The SeaBees and the nurses had a good rapport, and I felt like the characters had built the camaraderie that naturally evolves from serving together in the military.
Jugueta as Bloody Mary was the strongest cast member. Her “Bali Ha’i” was hauntingly sweet; I wanted to get on a boat and go to Bali Ha’i myself after her persuasive performance. Jugueta commanded the stage as strongly as she commanded the attention of the SeaBees. And she almost had me convinced that she had good intentions for her daughter Liat.
John G. Preston (as Navy Captain George Brackett) deserves a special mention for saving the ambience of the show during an off-stage mishap between scenes. The mishap backstage briefly stopped the show and had me questioning why Rodgers and Hammerstein would put an awkward moment with off-stage swearing in their show. After nearly a minute of silence, Preston looked at the audience from his on-stage desk, smirked, and pronounced an unscripted, “War is hell, folks.” With some well-delivered improv, Preston broke the tension and won the audience’s applause, after which the show continued.
For patrons who are in or traveling to Cedar City for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and for uber-fans of the show, I recommend making the drive to see South Pacific. For others, I’d recommend catching another great production from the Shakespeare Festival. Even with my objections, I am a cockeyed optimist after all: while the script is canon, I’m certain that this festival’s professional cast and crew will improve the show as the season progresses.