Reviewed and written By Jay Horne
South Pacific is a musical composed by Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. The work premiered in 1949 on Broadway and was an immediate hit, running for 1,925 performances.
Based on elements of (and several stories from) the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 book “Tales of the South Pacific” by James A. Michener, the original Broadway production enjoyed immense critical and box office success and became the second longest running Broadway musical to that point. It won 10 Tony Awards, including “Best Musical” and “Best Score”, largely due to the fact that Hammerstein wrote several of the songs with the particular talents of Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin, who had been signed as the leads. It is the only musical production to win Tony Awards in all four acting categories.
The plot centers on an American nurse, Nellie Forbush, stationed on the South Pacific island of Bali Ha’i during World War II, who falls in love with the middle-aged expatriate and French plantation owner Emile De Becque. As Nellie struggles to accept his mixed-race children, a secondary romance between a U.S. Marine Lt. Joseph Cable and a young Tonkinese woman, Liat. Joseph explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian-Pacific sweetheart. Supporting characters including a comic Petty Officer, Seabee Luther Billis, and Liat’s mother “Bloody Mary”, help tie the two stories together.
With these two romances in mind, the musical explores racial prejudice throughout the show, most controversially in the lieutenant’s song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”. This musical often walks the fine line between being a candid exploration of racism and interracial love, especially for the time in which it was written, and a continuation of the Orientalist narrative, especially the exoticizing of non-white characters in need of domination (specifically the women).
Despite the controversy and heavy topics, South Pacific is a beautiful story with great music, as you will experience by seeing this show.
The Director, Andy Meyers, puts it best when he writes, “I am honored to be trusted with the opportunity to bring South Pacific to life once again on Arizona Broadway Theatre’s magnificent stage, working with top-notch designers and an incredible cast and crew. Let these rich characters take you on a journey, and get lost in this amazing musical score, relevant themes, and timeless message”.
I spent a few minutes with Andy, and he told me that when he was working with the cast, in order to develop their characters and the background of the story, he directed them to relate to their relatives who experienced those events. This would help them to, more importantly, truly become the character they were portraying rather than just saying lines.
Upon entering the theatre, the lobby was adorned with a large, fully decorated Christmas tree. At the base were donations for Helping Hands for Freedom. A group of very talented young singers and an array of holiday music, accompanied by Kurtis W. Overby on the piano. This went a long way towards putting the then full house in a festive holiday mood and was a nice touch.
The set immediately evoked the image of what we think of when we imagine an island in the South Pacific and included net curtains and various pieces of furniture as needed to firmly root the musical in the 1940s.
The music, as South Pacific is famous for, was outstanding — truly some of the greatest ever written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Well-known and catchy numbers include “Some Enchanted Evening”, “There is Nothing like a Dame”, “Bloody Mary”, “Bali Ha’i” and of course so many others.
As those who read my reviews know, I always like to mention what I call the “showstopper number.” That’s not easy with South Pacific, as it’s one big showstopping number after another. If I had to choose, however, I would select in Act I “There is Nothing Like a Dame” and perhaps even “Some Enchanted Evening”. That particular duet between Nellie and Emile brought back some personal special memories of my beloved Vivian.
This was a very cohesive cast, from the characterization to the vocals, even down to the choreography. Two of the characters, Luther Billis played by Brad Rupp and “Bloody Mary” played by Eleonore S. Thomas, gave some of the best characterization I have seen in some time. They were most entertaining, both in the way they portrayed their characters and the way they commanded the vocals.
The audience responded most enthusiastically to all they were seeing and gave a rousing standing ovation at the end of the show. I had my very handsome and talented grandson Todd as my guest, and he found it to be “very realistic and believable” and loved both the music and the performers as well.
At this time I would like to acknowledge some of this cast of 23 and the Tech people who contributed to this production of South Pacific.
Kate Marshall — Ensign Nellie Forbush: Welcome to ABT, great portrayal, outstanding vocalizations.
Sean David Cooper — Emile De Becque: Excellent character and great vocals. Sean is not only making his debut but is associated with Actors Equity Association.
Brad Rupp — Luther Billis: Welcome back for your twentieth ABT production. One of the best performances I have ever seen, you shone like a hysterical bright light.
Eleonore S. Thomas — Bloody Mary: I loved you in Hands on a Hardbody, this show you performed as a star which you well deserved. Great performance!
Jason Plourde — Cmdr. William Harbison: Very good character, well done!
T.V. Reeves — Capt. George Bracket: A true character, very funny.
Jay McGill — Lt. Joseph Cable: Welcome to ABT, very believable character and well-done vocals.
To all the rest of this outstanding cast, a very professional performance in all respects!
Andy Meyers — Director: Congratulations my friend, excellent job as usual. You’re spoiling me!
Lauren Morgan — Choreographer: A job very well done.
James May — Musical Director: Excellent musical support by you and your seven musicians.
Michaela L. Stein — Scenic Design: Most believable set.
Lottie Dixon — Costume Designer: Very good WWII costumes
Cassandra and Kiel Klaphake: Once more congratulations on putting together a great cast.
In a Director’s Viewpoint, ABT’s production of South Pacific is truly a most entertaining show. You will love it! I highly recommend it as a show not to be missed for all adults.
In closing, I say, “Good night, Vivian. My Love.”