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Paper Mill Playhouse's South Pacific, as beautiful as ever

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By Bob & Sandy Nesoff
Members: North American Travel Journalists Association
American Society of Journalists and Authors

Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin may have exited stage left years ago, but their spirits are still alive and kicking at Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

The World War II theme of the show may be dated, but the story of men and women at war and those they deal with is still, unfortunately, current. But the cast members until the end are far removed from any conflict and the fun and frolic is in high gear.

Some have touched on the issue of racism they play deals with, primarily later on, but the main thrust is that of people living away from home and under difficult circumstances but yet making the best of what they have been dealt.

It’ always difficult to redo a classic as has been painfully obvious with such efforts as NJPAC’s version of the wonderful Le Miz, but Paper Mill has rightfully earned a reputation for staging both new offerings and golden oldies with respect and professionalism. South Pacific is no less a production.

Erin Mackey as Ensign Nellie Forbush is as amazing as her interaction with Mike McGowan’s South Seas planter, Emil de Becque. The budding romance between the two is palpable.

But if anyone jumps out it is Loretta Ables Sayre with a wonderful performance as Bloody Mary. She is at once a bouncy hustler selling shrunken heads and at the same time trying to make a romantic match between her daughter, Liat (Jessica Wu) and Marine lieutenant Joseph Cable ( Doug Carpenter).

Just as a technical note, although Cable and another Marine officer are supposed to be lieutenants, they wear captain’s insignia on their collars. A navy lieutenant would wear that insignia. This is of little import except to picky veterans in the audience.

Carpenter is a properly conflicted Caucasian as he contemplates his feelings for a dark skinned island girl and what the folks back home will think. Nellie Forbush aso lets her racial prejudices interfere with her feelings for Emile when she learns he has two children by an island woman.

Of course most of this is sorted out before the end, but while it is an important factor in the script, it doesn’t even come in to play until late in the show.

For the most part South Pacific is a rollicking, fun loving romp that could be classified as a combination of McHale’s Navy and Sgt. Bilko. The characters are the same and without doubt the television shows borrowed quite heavily from Rodgers and Hammerstein. But nothing equals the original.

Tally Sessions’ Luther Bellis, was perfection in channeling Carl Ballentine’s Lester Gruber in the Phil Silvers Show…or was it the other way around.

The musical numbers were familiar: There’s nothing like a dame, Bali High, I’m in love with a wonderful guy and the song aimed at the racially insensitive You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate).

Give yourself a treat. See South Pacific. Next on tap at Paper Mill is Grease, the John Travolta classic 50’s romp. That opens May 28 and runs through June 29 to close out the season. www.papermill.org.

It’s difficult to consider performances such as this as “off-off-off Broiadway when they are as talented and entertaining as anything on the Great White Way. Paper Mill has consistently produced top professional quality performances and at far less cost for tickets than anything in New York.

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