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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
South Pacific

When all you care about is here, this is a good place to be. — Emile de Becque
South Pacific
Erin Mackey and Mike McGowan (Photo: Jerry Dalia)
I wasn't initially thrilled at the prospect of seeing South Pacific at the Paper Mill Playhouse so soon after basking in its glow during its acclaimed and extended run at Lincoln Center in 2008. But it only took the first few notes of the overture to have me once again under its spell.

What made South Pacific so wonderful and startling when it opened on Broadway in 1949 (and went on to run for five years) was that it not only resonated with the reality of America at war but also mirrored an aspect of our social mores (with the notable exception of Show Boat in 1927) that was foreign to the American Musical Theater.

For some inexplicable reason, it was deemed too risky and dated (?) for a major revival on Broadway until the Lincoln Center production. Although the settings by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber from that production are making a re-appearance, as is the terrific Loretta Arles Sayre (Tony-nominated) as Bloody Mary, this classic musical play has an invigorating freshness and vitality thanks to the enlivening direction by Rob Ruggiero.

As adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan from novelist James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, the musical was a brave undertaking at the time. And yet we are not surprised at how topical, timely and adult it remains after 65 years. Nellie, a young navy nurse meets and falls in love with a French plantation owner, Emile de Becque, whom we discover is both a murderer and a widower with Tonkinese children. Racial bigotry is introduced into the principal romance and heightened further by a secondary love affair between a Marine lieutenant and a Tonkinese girl.

Tears flow easily as the tender and ill-fated love between Lt. Joseph Cable and Liat comes to its tragic end. The resolution for Nellie and Emile is happier, but they are richer for the test their love has experienced.

Whether capturing the musical's bent for unabashed exoticism or presiding over the perfectly integrated comic relief of gregarious sailor Luther Billis (as boisterously portrayed by Tally Sessions), director Ruggiero has also exposed the heart-wrenching core of this bittersweet fable.

In the role of Ensign Nellie Forbush, Erin Mackey fully embodies the conflicted "Cockeyed Optimist," with engaging vivacity that also may be said to define the entire company. She may try to "Wash that Man Right out of My Hair," but you are not likely to wash away your memory of her splendid performance or the sound of her sterling soprano voice.

Ultimately it is the honest and emotionally affecting textures of her portrayal that makes the conscience-struggling provincial from Little Rock so winning a heroine. Mackey, who was memorable as Oona O'Neill in Chaplin: The Musical, makes you agonize with her as she questions whether she should or shouldn't marry a Frenchman with "colored" children.

The salt and pepper-haired, good-looking and virile Mike McGowan is perfect as the plantation owner de Becque. Last seen at the Playhouse as Fred/Petruchio in Kiss Me Kate, McGowan has a rich and robust baritone voice that infuses "Some Enchanted Evening," and "This Nearly Was Mine" with all the impassioned feelings those lyrical songs demand.

The all-consuming love that develops during the one night encounter between Lt. Joseph Cable (Doug Carpenter) and Bloody Mary's Tonkinese teen daughter Liat (Jessica Wu) is handled with dreamy eroticism. Sayre is, as expected, a bloody scene-stealer as the entrepreneurial peddler Bloody Mary. She has what it takes to steal as many scenes as she can from a stage-full of energized enlisted men and spiffy-looking navy nurses.

Michael Yeargan's evocatively impressionistic settings are highlighted by a luminous backdrop of sky and the beachhead, a large sandy dune and a single palm tree. The faint image of Bali Hai looms across the sea. John Lasiter's subtle lighting allows Bali Hai to be seen and then fade into the mist to wondrous effect.

It pleases me to report that the lush score, as excellently conducted by Brad Haak, is not distorted by the sound engineers. And what a wonderful treat it is to hear Cable sing "My Girl Back Home," a charming melodic ballad that was not in the original production, but written for the film version and then used in the Lincoln Center revival. Totally enchanted evenings don't come along that often, so you don't want to miss this one.

South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II & Joshua Logan (Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Tales of the South Pacific" by James A. Michener
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Cast: Loretta Ables Sayre (Bloody Mary), Ryan Andes (Stewpot), Doug Carpenter (Lt. Joseph Cable), Scott Anthony Joy (Professor), Jordan Lage (Capt. George Brackett), Erin Mackey (Ens. Nellie Forbush), Mike McGowan (Emile de Becque), Rob Richardson (Cmdr. William Harbison), Tally Sessions (Luther Billis), Jessica Wu (Liat).
Original Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan
Original Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: John Lasiter
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Music Director: Brad Haak
Choreographer: Ralph Perkins
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
973 - 376 - 4343
Tickets: $27.00 - $98.00
Performances: Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 1:30 pm and 8 pm and Sunday at 1:30 pm and 7 pm.
From 08/09/14 Opened 04/13/14 Ends 05/04/14
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 04/13/14
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