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San Francisco by Patrick Thomas

South Pacific
Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre

Also see Patrick's review of The Marriage of Figaro, Jeanie's reviews of The Language Archive and Company, Richard's review of The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures


Randy Nazarian (front row, white t-shirt) with the Cast
The Mountain Play is a Marin County tradition of more than 100 years. Every May and June, the Mountain Play Association stages a musical at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, high on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, and thousands ride shuttle buses (or hike!) up the mountain to sit in the open air, look out over San Francisco Bay and the golden hills, and enjoy the family-friendly atmosphere. Some productions are well-suited to the al fresco setting (The Sound of Music, Brigadoon), others less so (Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls?). This year's offering, South Pacific, falls into the former category. It's perfect for an outdoor show, since most of the action takes place in the open air.

It's also perfect because South Pacific is one of the best—if not the best—Broadway musical ever written. Every song is great. Every one. Of course, some are greater than others, but there are no off numbers, none that just don't fit. On top of that, the book has true drama. Something important takes place on stage. In fact, several important things: two love stories and an adventure that also throws obstacles in the path of love. Add to all that the political undertones, the way it lays bare the foolishness of prejudice at the same time it reveals the importance of duty, and the glory of sacrifice for a noble cause.

Part of me wants to go on and talk about how this nearly 60+-year old show has such contemporary resonance, how it touches on deeper aspects of humanity (Bali Ha'i as a metaphor for the mystery of existence that compels us all to seek meaning in the midst of mystery), how it touches on aspects of humanity that are universal—both light and dark. But I would run the risk of boring you, something South Pacific never does.

I was fortunate enough to see the 2008 Tony Award-winning production of South Pacific at Lincoln Center in New York, and though that stage can accommodate almost anything a director would want to do, the Mountain Play does some things that would be very difficult even for a venue as commodious as the Vivian Beaumont Theatre—such as having full-size Jeeps and troop trucks trundling across the stage—and one thing that would be impossible for any indoor theater to pull off. (Since it's a bit of a spoiler, I'll only reveal it at the very end of this review.)

It's also impossible to pull off a great production of South Pacific without a great Ensign Nellie Forbush, who is the brave, sincere, headstrong heart of the show. Fortunately for those who will be making the pilgrimage up the mountain in the next couple of weeks (there are three performances left: June 7, 8 and 15), Taylor Chalker is wonderful in the role. She has the voice, the energy and, yes, the cockeyed optimism required to play the young nurse from Little Rock who discovers a world much larger (and much crueler) than her own. Chalker's performance is one of the very best things about this production.

Director Linda Dunn is to be congratulated for creating an experience that doesn't gloss over the tougher aspects of Rodgers and Hammerstein's masterpiece. This is not an entirely happy story. There's a war going on, and people are dying in it every day. Though these deaths never happen on stage, they are never far from mind. The setting, after all, is an island hospital in a war zone. To remind us of this, Dunn has placed a guard tower upstage left, and it is always manned by a soldier with a rifle. There's always work going on, and the faces of commanding officer Captain Brackett (James Dunn) and his XO, Cmdr. William Harbison (Greg Wolff) wear the stress on their faces.

Though the story has elements of tragedy, it's mostly upbeat—and the cast reflects this energy, especially the buoyant Randy Nazarian as Luther Billis, a Navy Seabee whose entrepreneurial spirit never lags. Nazarian is terrific in the role—perfectly obsequious to the commanders, perfectly adoring of the adorable Nurse Forbush, and perfectly domineering of the enlisted swabs around him.

Peter Vilkin, as French plantation owner Emile de Becque, brings a strong, operatic voice to the role, but lacks the smoldering sex appeal the role also requires. Tyler Costin does a reasonably good job as the young Lt. Cable, though he's a better singer than actor. Lily Tung Crystal, unfortunately, is the opposite: her acting was fine—she is appropriately pushy and mercenary as Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese woman who sells trinkets to the "stingy bastard" GIs, and pimps out her daughter Liat to Lt. Cable, hoping to make a good match. But her singing, especially in her first number, "Bali H'ai," was horribly flat at the performance I attended. She recovered somewhat for "Happy Talk," but still had significant pitch problems.

The orchestra (hidden backstage) is quite good, and the sound—given the challenges of the setting—is quite clear and audible. (Though the wind sometimes plays havoc with the wireless mics.) The sets feel authentic: mostly olive drab for the military buildings, but with an eruption of color when Bali H'ai is revealed. The choreography, however (by Barbara Bernardo), is bland and uninspired, with very obvious gestures and a lack of imagination throughout.

Early on, when Nellie Forbush arrives on the island, she gasps "Gosh, it's beautiful!" You may have the same reaction—not just for the stunning setting, but for the quite good production The Mountain Play Association has staged here.

South Pacific plays June 7, 8 and 15 at 2:00 pm. at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre in Mount Tamalpais State Park. Guidance for driving, hiking (to or from) or shuttle bussing to the venue (as well as ticket information) is available at www.mountainplay.org. Follow their directions carefully to ensure an enjoyable experience. (Though they don't suggest bringing binoculars or opera glasses, I do.) Tickets are $40 for adults, $35 for seniors (65+), $30 for those 14-21 and $20 for children 4-13. A limited number of premium tickets (including padded stadium chairs) for reserved seating in a shaded area start at $60.

Spoiler Alert! Stop reading now if you want to have a surprise at the end of the show to remain a surprise. As the show concludes, and we learn that the efforts of Lt. Cable and Emile de Becque have helped to push the Japanese off several nearby islands, so the Allied offensive can move forward, two World War II era planes fly just overhead. Try that Lincoln Center!


Photo: Ed Smith


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Patrick Thomas



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