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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Willows Theatre Group Presents A Naturalistic Production Of South Pacific

Also see Richard's reviews of Kristin Chenoweth in Concert and Thérèse Raquin

The Willows Theatre Company continues its 2003 season with that old warhorse musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. It seems that every regional company in the English speaking world presents this Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning musical to their subscribers regularly, since it is usually a crowd pleaser for the older patrons who buy subscriptions.

I confess that I am not the biggest fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, with some exceptions, such as Carousel and Oklahoma!. I can’t remember how many times I have seen South Pacific over the years, including the original at the Majestic Theatre in New York in 1949 with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. I have seen many touring companies with various Nellie Forbushes and Emile de Becques. There were even times I saw British actors/singers/dancers in the West End trying to be American sailors on a South Pacific isle. Recently Robert Goulet came to town with the all Hollywood version of the classic; I gave a thumbs down to that touring production.

I doubt there is anyone who goes to the theater even rarely who doesn’t know the storyline of South Pacific. The musical that is set on a small island in the South Pacific during World War II is as relevant today as it was when the tuneful production first opened. (It even has a war hating Frenchmen in the lead and homesick military personnel stationed in a different culture). South Pacific is noted for being one of the first musicals to approach racial prejudices, particularly in the song “You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” sung by Lt. Joe Cable about his forbidden romance with a young Tonkinese woman. Even the romance between the older French planter and the young Navy nurse from a conservative lifestyle in Arkansas was a watershed in the American musical. Additionally, South Pacific contains more humable standards than many American musicals, and most of the songs are still sung by various artists today.

This is the first time I have seen a regional musical of South Pacific, and I'm pleasantly surprised that the Willows Theatre Company pulls off this charming presentation, a more “naturalistic” and less Hollywood version. The chorus of sailors look just like the Navy personnel on an island in the South Pacific. They are excellent in singing and acting, and they look good with their shirts off. Even Edward Hightower as the wheeler dealer Luther Billis reminds me of some the men I served with in the South Pacific during the war.

South PacificGina Green plays Ensign Nellie Forbush, and she is very good as the “hick from Arkansas.” She has the accent and the mannerisms of the character down pat. Green plays it differently from than of the Hollywood types I have seen, and she has a pleasant voice to match. Joe Vincent, a 30 year veteran of West Coast Shakespeare and musical theatre (and recently on Broadway in The Elephant Man), is outstanding as Emil. He has a powerful operatic voice, that Pinza type voice that is essential in this role.

Newcomer Jason Winfield, who is becoming very popular after roles in Damn Yankees (Joe Hardy) and Roberta (John Kent), is striking as Lt. Joe Cable. He makes a great appearance as the virile young Naval officer who finds love with a Tonkinese beauty played very demurely by Kim Hidalgo. Winfield catches the sorrowful wonder of a button down youth, wide eyed at the discovery of his own sensuality. Jacqueline McSwanson is a youngish Bloody Mary, and her rendition of “Bail Ha’i” is lovely. Edward Hightower as Billis leads a rousing version of “There Is Nothin' Like a Dame” with a great male chorus. The Navy nurses look like the nurses that I saw on these islands during the war, not the Hollywood types you see in the touring companies. Even when they sing and dance “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” they do it with a certain natural clunky feeling.

The music is pre-recorded with a full orchestra, and it shows off the score very well. Virtual orchestras are a plus for regional companies who can’t afford full orchestras. The set designs by Ailyana Trotter are very good for a regional production, especially the Bali Ha’i island that occasionally shows up in the background. The only drawback is the quick use of blackouts with the sets being changed rapidly by the cast. This stops the flow of the action, especially in the first act. Andrew Holtz does an excellent job in directing South Pacific, and he is able to convey the naturalness of these characters to the audience.

South Pacific plays thru August 3rd at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd, Concord, and tickets can be obtaineded by calling in 925-798-1300 or visiting www.willowstheatre.com.

Their next production will be the annual John Muir’s Mountain Day, with original musical by Craig Bohmler (Enter the Guardsman), opening August 18 at the John Muir Amphitheatre on the waterfront in Martinez. This will be followed by the West Coast Premier of The Spitfire Grill, opening September 22.


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


- Richard Connema



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