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Review: 'South Pacific' at Paper Mill Playhouse

From left to right: Grace Wales, Caitlin Maloney, Erin Mackey (Nellie Forbush), Meggie Cansler, Paige Sommerer and Samantha Joy Pearlman.
From left to right: Grace Wales, Caitlin Maloney, Erin Mackey (Nellie Forbush), Meggie Cansler, Paige Sommerer and Samantha Joy Pearlman.
Photo by Jerry Dalia

Reviewed by Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com) April 13, 2014:

Opening night of South Pacific at the Paper Mill Playhouse was truly "some enchanted evening" as Richard Rodgers' lush melodies and Oscar Hammerstein's clever and affecting lyrics, sung by attractive and talented actors, enveloped the playhouse's cavernous auditorium, transporting the audience to the South Pacific Ocean where Americans battled the Japanese in the 1940's.

Using James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein cobbled together several of the books sketches to create a tale of love and loss. Somewhere on one of the distant Solomon Islands, a group of Seabees wait for the war to come their way. At the officer's club, Ensign Nellie Forbush, a nurse, has caught the eye of suave French planter Emile de Becque. As their romance blossoms, it is paralleled by that of Lt. Joseph Cable, sent to the island to find a way to spy on the Japanese and attack them when they least expect it, and the beautiful Tonkingese maiden, Liat. These couplings are unorthodox at the time, for they both involve a mixing of the races and cause Nellie and Cable much anguish. But all is not gloomy and sad; the frisky Seabees hilariously pine for "dames," stage a Thanksgiving extravaganza and, one of them at least, the wily Luther Billis, tries to find way to get to the mysterious island of Bali H'ai to witness exotic rituals involving boars' teeth and find the virginal maidens the natives have hidden away from the horny Yanks.

Director Rob Ruggiero, choreographer Ralph Perkins and music director Brad Haak give us a production worthy of Broadway. The cast they have assembled is talented, energetic, attractive and have no trouble carrying both the music and the dance steps. Erin Mackey is a lovely Nellie, not so far removed from Little Rock, Arkansas, that she's lost her Southern twang. Her clear soprano soars as she reveals she's a cockeyed optimist who's in love with a wonderful guy whom she later wants to wash right outta her hair! As Emile de Becque, Mike McGowan conveys the man's gravity while letting us see how besotted he is with Nellie. He is very handsome, and his baritone bowls us over as he sings of that enchanted evening when he first spied Nellie. As Nellie slips through his fingers, he sings "This Nearly Was Mine" so poignantly that it brings a tear to the eye.

Doug Carpenter, as Lt. Joseph Cable, conveys the yearning of a young man far from home who falls in love with a native girl, winsomely played by Jessica Wu. She may not have any dialogue, but her body English tells us all she'd want to say. Carpenter's tenor is especially suited to the song that Oscar Hammerstein wrote that sums up the play in a nutshell (and caused quite a stir when it was sung at the premiere), "You've Got to Be Taught." Tally Sessions' Luther Billis is a real operator, but one who can sing and dance, kicking up his heels as he leads the Seabees in their lament "There is Nothin' Like a Dame" or as Honeybun at the camp variety show. And Loretta Ables Sayre brings down the house as the conniving and profane Bloody Mary; her rendition of "Bali H'ai" will not be forgotten.

These stellar actors are aided and abetted by a handsome group of Seabees and a bevy of lovely nurses who add to the hijinks. Youngsters Gabby Gutierrrez as Ngana and Bonale Fambrini as Jerome, Emile's children, are darling; no wonder Nellie falls in love with them!

The set designed by Michael Yeargan evokes the God-forsaken island, complete with the blue South Pacific, palm trees and an elegant planter's villa. John Lasiter's lighting, Randy Hansen's sound and Catherine Zuber's costumes (with the assistance of Leon Dobkowski and Leah J. Loukas) complete the effect.

This sublime example of American Musical Theater reminds us of how much we have missed with the passing of two musical geniuses. A big thank you goes to the Paper Mill Playhouse for reviving South Pacific just in time for its 65th anniversary. When it opened in 1949, starring Broadway's darling Mary Martin and opera great Ezio Pinza, its themes were edgy and the war had been over for just a half decade. That it has stood the test of time is testament to its brilliance and, yes, to the fact that racial prejudice is still with us. And, it is a prime example of the heights to which the Paper Mill Playhouse will go to entertain us.

Note: You can take children ages 10 and up to see this show. The little boy behind me sat quietly through the entire play, but burst into tears learning of Cable's demise! And I heard other patrons burbling about how this could be just the show to introduce kids to the theater. There are no special effects, cartoon figures brought to life or jukebox melodies; what there is onstage is what the American theater does best: musical theater in all its glory.

South Pacific will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through May 4th. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit online at www.papermill.org.