Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Revitalized South Pacific in Peak Form
The production is based on the universally praised, revitalized version directed by Bartlett Sher for the Lincoln Center Theatre where it ran for a remarkable two and a half years and over 2000 performances beginning in 2008 in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
The framework for the new production includes the fluid, open and opulent set design of Michael Yeargan and the costumes designed by Catherine Zuber for Lincoln Center. The set appears to be a facsimile of the one that Yeargan employed for the national tour of the Lincoln Center production. It permits the fluid staging with instantaneous scene transitions which recent advances in technology have made possible without a trace of the skimpiness of design common to a number of recent Main Stem musicals which have made theatergoers long for the richness of Jo Mielziner's golden age designs. While the sets and playing areas are not as large as those employed on the thrust stage at the Beaumont, there remains the spaciousness which conveys an exhilarating sense of the lush South Pacific Islands setting. In fact, much to my surprise, I find that a greater intimacy has been made possible by the reduction of the attenuated depth stage setting at Lincoln Center.
Sher and his 2008 cast closely examined the text (and subtext) of each line of dialogue, and brought a new depth and dramatic intensity to the material. In doing so, they turned a groundbreaking 1949 musical into one with the density of character development and depth which mark the best of twenty-first century musicals. Add the lush, complex and richly melodic music of Richard Rodgers, the not always sufficiently recognized virtues of Oscar Hammerstein's warm, insightful and uncompromising, and witty lyrics, and a book (by Hammerstein with Josh Logan) which is a model for intelligence and clarity and concise musical playwriting, and you have American musical theatre of the highest order.
Sher and his collaborators revitalized South Pacific while neither "revising" the vision or the story, nor doing any violence to the dialogue of the musicals creators.
Rob Ruggiero, the director for this production (with his choreographer, Ralph Perkins), has kept this South Pacific as vibrantly fresh as it was in 2008 by re-examining each role and, with his cast, bringing organic interpretations to the performance. In some cases, this may just involve fine tuning, in others, quite a bit more. I find that the cast on the Paper Mill stage is as fresh, talented, convincing and entertaining as that which originated this South Pacific at Lincoln Center.
Erin Mackey is a most natural and convincing "Knucklehead Nellie." Not a hint of sophistication slips into her performance. With that whole business concerning her bigotry and lumping of non-Caucasians into a catch-all category of "coloreds" (a word reportedly cut from the original 1949 production, but now restored to the text), Mackey so brilliantly personifies the attitudes of the Jim Crow South that it flashes into life in our heads. An otherwise totally warm and charming person who has been "carefully taught," Mackey's Nellie is so pathetically lost here that she conveys a depth of tragedy which is devastating. Her delightfully hoydenish "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" is not only delightfully sung with quirky individuality, but the movement and gestures which permeate her singing of it, as well as the balance of her performance, register as being completely spontaneous and natural.
Mike McGowan is an unusually smooth and naturalistic Emile de Becque. His strong baritone is less operatic than Ezio Pinza's and those of other earlier de Becques. However, to my taste, his singing and performance of the lyrics (and the role) are more appropriate for this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical than the vocal (and dramatic) posturing that seem inevitably part and parcel of a full-out operatic interpretation of the character's lyrics. His "This Nearly Was Mine" is beautifully and movingly sung to perfection, and is one of the numerous dramatic high points of the evening.
In a class by herself is Loretta Ables Sayre, reprising the role of Bloody Mary to which she brilliantly gave new life in 2008. Her interpretation of Mary has turned what once was a musical comedy exotic into a deeply moving portrait of a hurt, caring woman. Her entertaining and once innocuous song, "Happy Talk," has been transformed into a dramatically powerful and emotionally involving piece of musical theatre. It seems to me that the power of Sayre's performance has grown since her stint at Lincoln Center. Her interpretation has not changed, but the depth of Bloody Mary's love for her daughter Liat, along with her desperation to provide a happy life for her, is even more powerfully conveyed than previously.
Doug Carpenter's vocalization and interpretations of the challenging "Younger Than Springtime" and "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" are exemplary, as is his moving, impassioned interpretation of Lt. Cable. Pay close attention to his duet with Mackey on "The Girl Back Home" and a triple internal rhyme which really tickles the ear. Ted Sessions is a delightful Luther Billis. Sessions captures the unusual dimension with which Billis has been endowed while being truly Borscht Belt funny in the role.
Other highlights include a terrifically sung and staged "There's Nothing Like a Dame"; the haunting reprise of "Honey Bun" as a subdued march underscoring the Seabees, Marines and WACS march to the troop ships taking them into dangerous war zones (it movingly reminds us of the importance popular music has played in the collective psyche of Americans); and Richard Rodgers' stirring martial music underscoring military operations.
And did I mention the pleasures offered by the likes of "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy," "Bali Ha'i," and "A Cockeyed Optimist"? Or the original three and a half minute overture lushly performed by a 19-piece orchestra? Insofar as I could observe, the Paper Mill opening night audience listened to the overture in rapt silence. Take a bow, New Jersey.
Randy Hansen's sound design is so well executed hereclarity, balance, lack of distortion and volume are all excellentthat it must be be acknowledged.
The Paper Mill Playhouse production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical South Pacific is American musical theatre at its best.
South Pacific continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday & Thursday 7:30 PM/ Friday & Saturday 8 PM/ Sunday 7 PM/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 PM) through May 4, 2014, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
South PacificMusic by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan: directed by Rob Ruggiero