Walking into the Off Center Theatre on Crown Center's third level, last Saturday, to see opening night of South Pacific, you realize that this will be different. There is a stage about six inches above the theater (common noun) floor, pink and blue stage lighting bathe the elementary school sized stage, six music stands spaced in an arc, each with its own 80s era microphone, and behind that are two rows of mom 'n' pop cafe stackable chairs. At the very back, dead center, is a beautiful golden harp, and on each side a piano. Hmmm.
Musical Theater Heritage (MTH) has specialized in what you might call a choreographed readers/singers theater. Groups of sailors and nurses come out to the tiny stage and do some stepping and singing, without tripping on each other. Spoken or sung conversations occur at the music stands without a lot of referral to the scores, action among principals consists mostly of switching their music scores and themselves from one stand to an empty one, with the spotlights illuminating the new stand.
George Harter, (Executive Director/Founder, and host of, "A Night on the Town," radio show) shares a few personal remarks to welcome the crowd and provide some background on what will happen on stage.
Songs are sung mostly as songs, not necessarily as plot-movers, example: "Some Enchanted Evening," brilliantly, sung (with great emphasis on the bass notes) by Christopher Sanders (Emile) with the love song finesse of Bizet's, "Toreador Song," boom! The song is an opportunity to convince Ft. Smith's Nellie (Ashley Pankow) that she should see him across that imaginary crowded room, and love him forever, which she eventually does, but the audience doesn't know why. He later sang, "This Nearly Was Mine," just as beautifully, but with a real sense of regret, pathos, and grief, that Nellie cannot accept him with his, "baggage."
Adam Branson (as Lt. Cable) had the unenviable task of starting the mandatory Rodgers and Hammerstein homily, "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught." He played it straight, with a fairly soft interpretation, shaming both his own cultural misgivings about marrying Bloody Mary's (Enjoli Gavin) Asian daughter, Liat ((Megan Herrera) and introducing her to his high society parents and friends in Philadelphia, and Nellie's unwillingness to accept Emile's love, once he told her about the delightful daughters he had with his departed Polynesian wife, Ngana and Janette (Julia and Janelle Balino). The lieutenant dies shortly after on a mission with Emile, so he doesn't have to decide. Emile returns, Nellie has made friends with the girls (who could resist) and the lovers embrace to close the show. James Michener, the writer of the extracted stories, tells us that they do indeed marry, and that Nellie takes up residency on Emile's plantation.
Julia and Janelle Balino, as the daughters, sang the opening number with sheer delight to the audience. They sang sprightly, they were beautifully choreographed, their facial expressions (easy to see in the small theater) were coordinated and depicted the joy of childish life. They were so tiny that it was difficult to expect much from them, but they were in tune, had good tone, were totally audible, and stole the stage whenever they were present.
Ashley Pankow (Nellie) sang with a Broadway voice, in contrast to Christopher Sanders' more operatic sound, but she expressed emotion well, and her songs convincingly carried her part of the plot. The random punctuation of phrases by music stand changing emphasized the fact that the characters were singing from scores.
Bloody Mary (Enjoli Gavin) stayed in character for the whole show, with Pidgin English enthusiasm, she gradually grew from comic scenery to the philosophically grounded arbiter of conflicting emotions. Her interpretation of "Bali Ha'i," with its mythical description of the land across the water developed her person from accessory to a central element.
The ensemble numbers were well done, mostly comic relief, other than the girls' reprise of Bloody Mary's, "Bali Ha'i," which was enticingly dreamy.
The format works. More imagination is required of the audience, as in reading books (you remember books, a bunch of sheets of paper, bound between harder outsides - covers, more recently presented on reading machines, and information is printed on the pages, in this case, a story) the reader must imagine the scenery and the characters. In an MTH presentation, you have fine singers, rehearsed music, scenic and costume indications and spoken dialogue. In a metro the size of Kansas City, this may be the only way to enjoy this treasured body of literature, unless people want to get together and read the same story at the same time (in the library?) or have a noisome singalong. This is nice; if you like South Pacific, you will love this show; it runs through August 24, 2014. Call (816) 545-6000 or go online to www.mthkc.com for tickets, which are reasonably priced. From the photographs, you can perceive that dress is as you like.