An outstanding production of “South Pacific” opened on Sunday night at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Directed by Rob Ruggiero and choreographed by Ralph Perkins, this production is a great pick for musical theater fans who enjoy this time honored classic.
First opening on Broadway in 1949, the show was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Tales of the South Pacific” by James A. Michener. For the Broadway stage, the book was by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, music was written by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Hammerstein. The show was a phenomenal hit for years on Broadway which lead to the 1958 movie. There have been several revivals on Broadway including a recent award winning 2008 production that ran for over two years at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center.
The Paper Mill Playhouse’s roomy stage gets used to full advantage in this show. The sets and lighting are designed to allow the feeling of the tropics and the war effort to prevail. The use of maps of the area in the war rooms and the switch to the calmer areas of the islands are effective for setting the tone and the pace of the action.
This production’s music is under the direction of Brad Haak. A strong orchestra overture leads into some of the most beautiful songs that have become a part of musical theater history including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” “Younger than Springtime” and more. The cast was applauded enthusiastically throughout the show for their fine renditions of the classic songs and it was well deserved.
The cast is led by Erin Mackey who plays Ensign Nellie Forbush. Her portrayal of the World War II nurse has enough innocence and enthusiasm to make it tragic when her love for the island Frenchman is challenged by her own feelings of racism. As we see her struggle with this, the thought of love helping her to deal with these feelings is totally believable. Emile de Becque is played by Mike McGowan. McGowan brings a necessary maturity to the character. His strength of character comes through in his convictions towards life, love, and his family. And when he sings “Some Enchanted Evening” we realize that he has found that love he has been searching for and greatly needs. Tally Sessions plays the conniving Luther Billis with good humor but whose own love for Nellie Forbush remains unspoken but admirable nonetheless. Loretta Ables Sayre is phenomenal as Bloody Mary. As a member of the cast of the 2008 Broadway revival, Sayre was Tony nominated for her role. The role of Lt. Joe Cable is well played by Doug Carpenter. Cable is a character who changes the most during this show and in some ways is tortured towards the end by his recognition of his feelings of racism as he angrily sings “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught." The beautiful island girl he falls in love with is played by Jessica Wu.
As the years pass, “South Pacific” is becoming a bit of a historic testament to the efforts of the U.S. in World War II as well as a classic show in musical theater. We experience a bit of the terror and uncertainty that the troops stationed in the Pacific during the Japanese occupation of that area did. We can respect the sacrifices they made and the eventual death of Lt. Joe Cable serves to remind us of that. However, the question of how we handle the storyline connected with racism remains a force that society continues to struggle with.
“South Pacific” will perform at the Paper Mill through May 4, 2014 eight times a week, Wednesday through Sunday. The Performance Schedule is: Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday at 1:30pm and 7:30pm, Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 1:30pm and 8:00pm and Sunday at 1:30pm and 7:00pm. For tickets information and/or purchase, call 973.376.4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.papermill.org.