Long before the first actor takes the stage, the orchestra and the set have stolen the spotlight in this show about a far off island where World War II is making its mark on a tropical paradise. Michael Gribbin and his 11-person orchestra’s overture are a beautiful accompaniment to the backdrop of the island Bali Ha’I, which is changing colors, moods and times of day under the genius lighting design of Kirk Bookman. It truly sets the tone for this musical that changes moods and tones throughout, from intense and heartwrenching one moment to playful and campy the next.
Seventy years ago, just four years after World War II ended, Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein and Josh Logan adapted James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific into a story about the collision of plantation owners, Marines, Seabees, nurses, sailors and native islanders on the beaches of an island in the South Pacific. What ensues is a story that seems as if we are viewing it through a dream.
Some of it seems so far away in time, although its battles with prejudice and racism, love and patriotism still ring true to modern day audiences.
South Pacific is a musical of intertwining story lines. Ensign Nellie Forbush (Allie Babich) from Little Rock, Ark. has caught the eye of lonely French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Michael Scott Harris). Local Tonkinese entrepreneur “Bloody Mary” (Christine Jugueta) is making her living off teasing, taunting and entertaining the Seabees with valuable trinkets and intriguing stories from the forbidden Bali Ha’i island in the distance. Resourceful and hot tempered Seabee Luther Billis (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) is busy trying to find his own money-making scheme and swindle his way over to Bali Ha’i when the driven Lt. Joseph Cable arrives on the island with a secret and dangerous reconnaissance mission to spy on the Japanese troops.
All these characters’ lives collide into a story that makes for a musical that has toe-tapping ensemble pieces, love ballads and mysterious siren-like musical moments.
Fortunately, the cast was up to the musical challenge of this play. There was not a weak voice in the cast. Babich had a lovely, full voice that headed up well-known ensemble pieces like “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Honey Bun” with a contagious optimism and playfulness. Her voice was equally beautiful when combined with Harris’s Emile de Becque, even if their onstage romance lacked the hoped for chemistry in songs like “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This is How it Feels.”
Babich gave a genuine performance as she completely embodied her character’s cock-eyed optimism throughout the play and yet she seemed genuinely betrayed by her own feelings of prejudice when she discovered de Becque’s first wife had been a Polynesian woman.
Harris’s voice was impressive as Emile de Becque even if I was not completely in love with his portrayal of Emile. His performance seemed very contrived when on stage with Nellie and his portrayal of a Frenchman was a little over the top for this reviewer who happens to have French relatives. Yet, he had moments when I believed that he could bring more believability to his character as the season goes on.His final scene with his children and Nellie was one of those moments.
Jugueta’s Bloody Mary was fantastic. She could sing, she could dance, she could taunt and she could enchant with her singing voice and her portrayal of this lovable, fearless island mama and entrepreneur. Her business competitor Seabee Luther Billis is played by an actor who is turning out to be one of my favorite USF performers this year, Aaron Galligan-Stierle. He seizes every one of his moments on stageas a hot-headed, scheming, driven, but big-hearted Billis. He leads the ensemble in one of my favoritemusical numbers of this production, “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” I say there is nothing like a strong cast of singers belting out this song to Christine Kellog’s choreography that includes synchronized push- ups by the G.I.s, all without missing a note.
Surprisingly, Nigel Huckle’s performance of the impassioned Lt. Joseph Cable was perhaps my favorite of the musical. He was the most realistic character for me as he showed disdain for Billis’ lack of military decorum, fought for his desire to win a war and surrendered to love at first sight with Liat (played by Samantha Ma). Usually love-at-first-sight scenes are a little unrealistic to me. Perhaps it was the dream-like music and set during this scene that helped me suspend my skepticism, but I think it was his portrayal of a young man who throws his entire attention and passion at everything he does.
In the end, the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s South Pacific was an enjoyable interlude that left me feeling a little like I was either in a dream or in a 1950s Hollywood musical. In many ways it was not quite what I expected, but the unpredictable moments in scenery, the musical talent and the director’s storytellingtactics are what make for a good musical.