“I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description.”
So begins James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” the book which was the inspirational source of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical “South Pacific.”
The challenge of this musical was to combine visual beauty with the horror of war while sprinkling in elements of romantic comedy.
The Riverside Center for the Performing Arts production, masterfully directed by and choreographed by Penny Ayn Maas and produced by Patrick A’Hearn, succeeds in weaving these delicate threads of the music together and is complemented with an outstanding cast and brilliant singing and musical numbers.
“South Pacific” is set in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War with two interconnected parallel stories.
In one, a naïve nurse from Arkansas, Ensign Nellie Forbush, is sent to an American-held island in the South Pacific where U.S. military officers suspect that local French plantation owner Emile de Becque is a fugitive hiding from justice.
They convince Nellie to spy on Emile since she is his closest contact for she has fallen in love with him. At the same time, their budding relationship is complicated by her inability to accept Emile’s previous marriage to (and children by) a woman of Polynesian descent.
Similarly, Lt. Joseph Cable of the U.S. Marine Corps is smitten with Liat, the daughter of the local “Bloody Mary.” In both plots, Nellie and Joe’s racial prejudices and fears of what others will think complicate their feelings of love. In the face of war and death, both Nellie and Joe begin to realize the folly and irrationality of their racism.
The sets of this production are elaborate yet straightforward. Lighting, in particular, was used to create a romantic ambiance of a Pacific island, as is appropriate for the love stories and essential for a performance of “South Pacific.”
The mysterious island of “Bali Ha’i” is seen sometimes faintly and sometimes glowing in the background. This atmosphere is augmented, of course, by wonderful singing and the acting.
Kadejah Oné portrays Bloody Mary with verve, especially as she sings hauntingly “Bali Ha’i,” deservedly one of the musical’s most famous songs. During this song, beautiful stage light colors are used effectively by spotlight operators Sissy Blackburn, Maria Blackburn and Steve Thompson.
Other sets included a map of the Pacific which covers the entirety of the stage as well as a compelling scene with a more spartan stage as men on a dangerous mission make contact with military headquarters by radio.
The musical and this production of it balance the comedic moments with the serious moments well. Alan Hoffman provides comic relief as Luther Billis, a character whose entrepreneurial spirit is a match for that of Bloody Mary.
What truly lifts this version to great heights, however, is bass opera singer Branch Fields as Emile de Becque. His performances of “Some Enchanted Evening” and notably “This Nearly Was Mine” are so strong they push “South Pacific” from the world of the musical into the genre of operetta. Kate Marshall gives a thrilling performance as Nellie Forbush, portraying her not only with naïveté but with great character and spunk.
Her rendition of “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair” is not to be missed. The fabulous chorus performances such as “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” allow the strong Broadway elements of “South Pacific” to emerge, and the orchestra conducted by Angela Donadio is small but amazingly effective.
A few words describing the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts: It is a spacious dinner theatre with table service from a menu of several delicious options. Waiters and waitresses are the cast and crew from the show.
A bit of the atmosphere of the era foreshadowing the romance of the show is given as patrons first dine to the background music of 1930s recordings such as “Love is the Sweetest Thing,” “The Object of My Affection” and “Isn’t It Romantic?”