OREM — South Pacific takes place at a critical time during World War II. America is fully engaged in the war, but the nation and its allies have yet to decisively turn the tide in their favor. The Axis powers occupy large swaths of invaded territory, and it is not yet clear when the war will end—or under what conditions. The SCERA production of South Pacific follows the same ebb and flow of history: a rough start, a gradual turn of fortune, and a satisfying finish.
Based on James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical tells the story of Ensign Nellie Forbush, an army nurse from Arkansas who has been stationed on a remote Pacific island during World War II. While there, she falls for the French plantation owner, Emile de Becque. Meanwhile, a new marine, Lt. Joseph Cable, arrives and soon falls in love with Liat, a native girl who lives on the neighboring island.
The rocky beginning of the play was mostly due to the unfocused direction from Jerry Elison, who had trouble creating intimate scenes on the expansive SCERA Shell stage. Elison seemed more concerned with having actors use the entire space than creating believable relationships. Unfortunately, the lengthy first scene of South Pacific is all about the growing emotional closeness between Emile and Nellie. But with the two actors spending most of their time on stage about 15 feet apart without making eye contact, which made it difficult to believe that the characters were forming a lasting relationship. As a result, the emotional core of South Pacific was completely missing.
Rather, Elison’s strengths as a director in staging large group scenes and in getting actors to move the story along at a brisk pace. As the play progressed and the script by Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan focused more on the war, the problems in the direction were less noticeable, and some of the challenging scenes (such as when Lieutenant Buzz Adams, played by William Pritchard, described the start of Lt. Cable’s mission) were successful. I also enjoyed the believable way the nurses’ dished about Nellie’s romantic relationship.
As Nellie Forbush, Shannon Eden was pleasant as she portrayed a young woman in a man’s world. Eden gave her character a friendly demeanor that made it clear why the men on the base were comfortable working with her or doing favors for her. Yet, she also had her moments of strength and dignity, especially in the second act as she pondered the future of her relationship with Emile. Additionally, Eden has a singing voice that serves the score well, and I delighted in her renditions of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair,” “Honey Bun,” and “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy.”
Likewise, Rex Kocherhans had a sonorous voice that gave “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” a richness that the songs deserve. Kocherhans also gave Emile some emotional depth in his discussions about killing a man and when deciding whether to help the Americans in their war efforts. The biggest drawback of Kocherhans’s performance was in the lack of charisma in his body language. This made it difficult to see him as a suave foreigner that Nellie would fall madly in love with.
Among the supporting cast, one standout was Tyson Wright as Luther Billis, an enlisted navy man who always has a scheme to earn some extra money. Wright’s reactions to the good-natured teasing, and the lengths he would go to in order to impress his crush, Nellie, were endearing. On the other hand, Kyle Hansen’s portrayal of Lt. Cable was lackluster because of the limited range of emotional reactions. Whether he was professing his love for Liat (played by Kiely Boll) or discussing a dangerous mission, Hansen’s line deliveries seemed very similar. This was most disappointing in his performance of “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” which lacked conviction.
The South Pacific ensemble was far more coherent than most amateur musical ensembles. Their strong debut with “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and the bubbly energy of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair” were easy to enjoy as they executed Kristen Bradley’s rhythmic choreography. Even the short reprise of “Honey Bun” was gratifying. The only shortcoming in the ensemble was that about a third of the men seemed too refined in their voices and demeanor to be believable as overworked soldiers.
The technical artists for South Pacific created some admirable work, which was most apparent in Teri Griffin’s set design. The bright tropical flowers were an nice contrast to the green jungle foliage painted onto the set. Griffin also created an excellent set for the island commander, which had the appearance of being constructed out of tropical wood and was easy to imagine as a glorified tropical shack. Deborah Bowman and Kelsey Seaver‘s military costumes were faithful to the period and were integral in creating the illusion of the 1940’s. My only wish were that Emile’s costumes were more elegant, which would have made him seem more exotic to Nellie. Finally, Elizabeth Griffiths’s lighting design is worth noting for the way she used slight touches to emphasize the mood of songs like “Bali Ha’i” and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”
I would be “A Cockeyed Optimist” to call this South Pacific flawless. Yet it has its strengths. I was skeptical about the show’s chances for a winning show early on, but as they took the actors took their final bows, I recognized that they had achieved victory. I recommend SCERA’s South Pacific for anyone looking for an affordable introduction to this important musical or who just wants a quick escape to the tropics without having to deal with the humidity.