Regional Reviews: St. Louis
And, sorry, "long run" is kind of a joke here: the original production in 1949 ran for nearly 1,500 performances, and the 2008 Broadway revival made it to nearly 1,000. This newest summer stock offering in suburban Kirkwood, Missouri, also has a lot to recommend it, thanks to director Michael Hamilton. And he brings it all in at about two hours and forty-five minutes, even with the many reprises of beautiful, well-known songs.
Leah Berry is an exuberant Nellie, though she seems intentionally isolated at first. For most of her first scene, she is directed to look away from her romantic partner and to face out front toward the audience almost entirely, for some unknown reason. She has a shimmering voice, as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Navy nurse, and a great cast around her in this final offering of Stages St. Louis' 31st season. But, as Nellie herself remarks, everyone on this South Pacific island is from somewhere else. And in this production, the sense of alienation and isolation is pervasive, thanks in large part to her. The only exception, of course, among the featured players, is the Tonkinese souvenir dealer Bloody Mary (the excellent Joanne Javien): the Mother Courage of the Asian theater (of war).
But in this case, the usual isolation and alienation of war and conscription is driven by Nellie who, in a later scene, exhibits the high anxiety of Janet Leigh in her shower scene in Psycho, when Nellie is confronted over her own racism. Ms. Berry and director Hamilton turn that confession about Nellie's Southern upbringing into a great, shocking dramatic moment, when it all comes to a boil. She makes it startlingly new. But in spite of her obvious charms, and with the other notably haunted romantic leads already in the mix, the show takes a distinctly charmless turn.
That's late in the game, though. Early on, Ms. Berry is directed to exhibit what we used to call "star eyes," a phrase that sometimes refers to a notorious story about Ethel Merman as Rose in the original run of Gypsy, and her purported decision not to look at leading man Jack Klugman in a scene on stage, and instead to stare straight out during their dialog together (as if it were all about her, "alone in the spotlight"). Finally (the story goes), Mr. Klugman literally stopped talking during a performance (as Herbie) until Merman was forced to turn and look at him. And it turns out he was probably right: if you want the audience to believe you're in love, you have to share the scene.
That does not happen here, in the crucial first scene. This production of South Pacific breaks that "Klugman rule" right off the bat. Nellie is on a date with a wealthy French plantation owner, Emile de Becque, played by the somber and elegant Michael Halling. He doesn't really have any musical tricks up his sleeve singing Emile's signature song, "Some Enchanted Evening," but he's solid and, well, somber. Maybe if he leapt an octave or two at the end, like Ezio Pinza did to Mary Martin in the original production, Nellie's defenses would be down, and he'd have her where he wants her, to paraphrase Irving Berlin.
Yet because she seems so inextricably wrapped up in her own drama (like all the romantic leads here), her relationship never quite jells. And it doesn't feel like ever have a love duet, either. Maybe the producers wanted to turn it into a chillier, more psychologically complex Sondheim show. But if they did, I don't think the transformation was entirely successful.
Owing to the way the show is conceived, and perhaps even owing to the stage direction here, everyone except Bloody Mary seems especially remote or unsettled, more than I remember from past stagings. The songs are still lavish, and we fall into a welcomed trance every time the pre-recorded music starts up for each monumental tune in the score. But the show seems written, psychologically, in a minor keybecause war is hell and racism is bad, of course. It's just that it's hard to empathize with the distracted romantic characters in this production, so we are left to watch, and imagine our own selves at younger ages, and each time we've viewed productions in the past (or the 1958 movie).
So we let the music wash over us, and find we are measuring ourselves at each past viewing, against this legendary post-war smash, against this immutable cultural standard, and comparing ourselves to the "can do" spirit of Navy Seabees, and all the charming nurses who jog up and down the beach all day, singing tunes out of the Great American Songbook (and giving us the show's only significant doses of camaraderie). And, with the romantic leads on stage this time, we realize we've grown as inward-directed as they are, over time. Some people live on a lonely island, as the haunting "Bali Ha'i" tells us. And suddenly, it seems like "some people" is all of us. (Wait, is this a pan, or a rave?)
In any case, Matthew Hydzik is outstanding as a bemused Lt. Cable, Bloody Mary's target as a husband for her daughter (the lovely Sydney Jones). Mr. Hydzik projects humor and pathos with equal facility, sings very nicely, and makes for a good, sexy "yank" in the final months of a long war. Maybe he gets away with his own sense of isolation because it seems nobler (and less panicked) on him, than the prejudice Nellie must wear in her own shrieking torment. And (being young) this Lt. Cable shows a lot more emotional variety on-stage than the more mature Emile.
Mark DiConzo is a scheming, delightful and even complex cartoon as Luther Billis; John Flack is terrific as the island base commander, Captain Brackett, with impeccable Steve Isom as his aide-de-camp. Ellen Isom, his wife, does a very fine job with the choreography throughout. (A polite note to the officers and enlisted people on stage, though: salutes should be given with the upper arm parallel to the ground.)
The nurses' chorus is at its most dazzling near the end of the talent show (at the top of act two), imitating a 1930s style nightclub act; and the wisecracking sailors do well in all their numbers too. The set, by James Wolk, is staggering: the widest, most Cinemascopic construction I've ever seen in this venue, with a beach that goes on for miles, seemingly, and lovely woven roller shades as textured, atmospheric scrimsand (of course) that mystical island, far away, up center-stage.
Based on "Tales of the South Pacific," James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, South Pacific continues through October 8, 2017, at the Robert G. Reim auditorium, 111 South Geyer. For more information visit www.stagesstlouis.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the U.S.