note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
Although Ogunquit Playhouse’s production of beloved classic musical “South Pacific” is magnificent, the excitement initially buzzing through last Wednesday afternoon’s performance was in the audience.
As theatergoers filled the large theater, suddenly everything stopped. The crowd rose to its feet, clapping reverentially, as former President George H.W. Bush, his wife, Barbara, and three secret servicemen entered through a side door. Mrs. Bush, wearing her large signature pearl necklace and earrings, smiled radiantly and waved to the crowd as secret servicemen helped her husband alight from his wheelchair and get situated in his fifth row, aisle seat. When Executive Artistic Director Bradford Kenney introduced the former first couple, who rose and greeted the crowd, theatergoers responded with another round of applause. Throughout the almost three-hour play, Mrs, Bush smiled, laughed and applauded appreciatively. So did her reserved husband.
And they should have. Ogunquit’s new production of “South Pacific” is probably the finest I’ve seen anywhere. Its fantastic cast boasts many who appeared in the multi-Tony Award-winning, 2008 Lincoln Center Theater revision of the 1946 original production starring Mary Martin and opera singer Ezio Pinza.
Although “South Pacific” won many other awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and appeared on stages and movie theaters nationally and internationally in the past 66 years, its story of racial prejudice, war, and tales of the South Pacific, based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, never loses its relevance or charm.
Ogunquit Playhouse delivers a red carpet treatment of this classic, from Music Director Ken Clifton and Company’s stirring overture to the play’s dramatic finale. Richard Latta’s fabulous lighting effects, coupled with Jeremy Oleksa’s wide range of sounds, from gentle South Pacific breezes to bombs exploding, malfunctioning, military, squawky radio transmissions and screeching sirens; Catherine Zuber’s authentic-looking military issue, island garb, and 1940’s fashions; and Michael Yeargan’s original set design, including the naval South Pacific base to De Becque’s plantation estate; rainbow-hued skies of exotic Bali Ha’i to deepening battle gray war clouds; and huge scrims of typewritten text to island maps, is awesome.
Choreographer Victor Wisehart, who performed in the Lincoln Center Theater production, creates snappy, energetic, and acrobatic moves, and Director Shaun Kerrison deftly guides this professional cast and ensemble.
Jennie Sophia of the national tour is superb as naive, 27-year-old Navy nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush, whose cockeyed optimism is a delightful contrast to her rich, French fortyish lover, Emile de Becque. Sophia and her co-star, opera singer Branch Fields, produce affectionate, loving chemistry that captures the audience’s hearts. Fields’ rich bass resonates dramatically throughout the large theater, especially in his solos of “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “This Nearly Was Mine”. He also sings tenderly with his Tonkinese children, (Jasmine Nicole and Steven Sebastian Reyes Jr.) and comically while imitating Nellie’s insistence that she’s “Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”.
Christopher Johnstone (who recently toured with the first national Lincoln Center Tour) is moving as USMC Lt. Joe Cable of Philadelphia, a Princeton graduate who finds forbidden love, too. Island character Bloody Mary (whom Christine Toy Johnson vividly portrays) tells him his own special island, Bali Ha’i, is beckoning to him, tantalizing him. There, he meets Mary’s lovely daughter, Liat, whom Hsin-Yu Liao of the Broadway National Tour touchingly portrays with wide-eyed innocence.
Like the worldly, sophisticated De Becque and “Knucklehead” Nellie, a hick from Little Rock, Ark., Cable and Liat’s romance is doomed, because of familial racial prejudice. Cable’s stirring proclamation, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” was a controversial, pivotal message of “South Pacific,” that highlighted Americans’ prejudicial undertone during World War II that persists somewhat today.
Ben Crawford as scheming sailor Luther Billis, who’s always looking to make an extra buck but sincerely cares about Nellie, adds comic relief with this fantastic male ensemble.
Listen....look.....your own special island is calling you - to Ogunquit. After seeing “South Pacific,” you’ll be “Talking Happy,” feeling “Younger than Springtime” and mesmerized by this musical’s magic.
BOX INFO: Two-act musical, music, lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, appearing through July 15 at the Ogunquit Playhouse, Route 1N, 10 Main Street, Ogunquit. Tickets: $39-$74. For showtimes, tickets and more information, visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org or call 207-646-5511.