South Pacific Still Sparkles in Lyric Light Opera Production
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's 1949 mega award-winning Broadway smash South Pacific was restored to its former glory in the darker, lustier, Bart Sher directed version on Broadway about four seasons back. That version toured successfully to Seattle and now, with the generally sure-footed Lyric Light Opera production (just closed in Kirkland, and poised to re-open up North in Mt. Vernon, north of Seattle), that version receives its first local mounting.
The stories told (from James Michener's best-selling novel) are the same, as is the score, other than the wise addition of the once cut "My Girl Back Home" (used initially in the 1958 Hollywood film). But the racial prejudices of the American leads is heightened and made to look as ugly as possible. Such a thing would have tanked the show in 1949, where the angle was soft-pedaled, but is all to the good for modern audiences to be reminded of.
Any South Pacific rises or falls on the actor/singers playing out the key roles, and director Brenda Mueller, who has paced the near three-hour production as briskly as a passing island trade wind, has found a grand, largely non-Equity company which compares favorably to the national tour that played the 5th Avenue a few seasons ago. As" knucklehead" Nellie Forbush, the sunnily optimistic Navy Ensign who has the main romance of the show with French planter Emile de Becque, rising Seattle star Cayman Ilika sings her hit-laden share of the score (including "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "A Wonderful Guy" and "Honey Bun") with robust brilliance, and is able to bring out Nellie's harsher side when rejecting the romantic attention of Emile, due to his having parented two children with his late Polynesian wife. Misha Myznikov, a vet of Seattle Opera Company since 1993, has the dulcet tones to kill with his renditions of "Some Enchanted Evening," "This Nearly Was Mine" and his duet with Ilika on "Twin Soliloquies." Unlike others I have seen in the role, Myznikov is a solid actor, bringing out both Emile's sense of humor, as well as his crusade against the bullies of the world and WWII in particular. Casey Raiha comes into his own as a cocky, yet passionate Lieutenant Joe Cable, whose doomed love story with island girl Liat (the lovely and graceful Lauren Ruhl) has never seemed quite as poignantly handled to me. Raiha also utilize his fine bari-tenor to advantage on the haunting "Younger Than Springtime," plays well off Ilika in "My Girl Back Home," and doesn't overplay the tricky "Carefully Taught."
Two audience favorite roles from this musical are the wily Tonkinese peddler gal (and mother of Liat) Bloody Mary and Private Luther Billis, played with distinction by Jessilyn Carver and Neil Rogers respectively. Ms. Carver (whose bio shows a history with the role) is crass, loud and vulgar as required, but never demeans the character, and sells her two numbers, "Bali Ha'i" and "Happy Talk" with everything in her. Billis is the buffoon of the story, and Rogers aces the role, strongly leading the male ensemble's "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and cavorting in comic drag for "Honey Bun." In non-singing roles, Kevin Cobley blusters agreeably as Captain Bracket, while James Ilika wisely soft peddles his performance as Commander Harbison as counterpoint. The male ensemble, though rowdy and earnest, seem almost to a man way too young to pass as real sailors, while the female ensemble has no such issue, and are spunky and energized.
A few trumpet bleats notwithstanding, orchestra director Valerie Tung's band does honor to the Rodgers melodies, as indeed does musical director John Allman's vocal direction of the cast. What choreography needed has been ably provided by choreographer Stacy Poirier. The handsome sets came from Utah Festival Opera and McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, with set design credited to Bill Forrester. Authentic '40s apparel is provided by costume designers Victoria Gatchalian and Lisa Stenberg.
South Pacific opens at McIntyre Hall in Mt. Vernon on April 14th running through April 22, 2012. For ticket information go to www.LyricLightOpera.org.