Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

South Pacific
Asolo Rep

Also see Bill's reviews of Klea Blackhurst and The Full Monty

Ben Davis and Kelly Felthous
The classic musical South Pacific opens Asolo Rep's 2014-15 season, the third year of a five year consideration of "the american character." It was only the 2nd musical ever to win the Pulitzer prize for Drama (Of Thee I Sing was the first, although its composer George Gershwin was not part of the award). Everything about it is perfect, strong storytelling by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, memorable characters, and one great song after another by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein. While watching it unfold in front of me, my mind was telling me that each song was my favorite until another came along. For a while, this glorious musical failed to make the impact it should, seeming to be out of date. I have seen several productions that fell flat because the central romance between Emil De Becque and Nellie Forbush did not ring true. It seemed to fall victim to the same problem that often sabotages On the Town: the audience needs to feel what the characters were feeling at the time of World War II, that it actually might be the end of the world. In 2008 director Bart Sher staged a magnificent version for Lincoln Center Theater that made the show totally believable again. One important factor was making Emil younger, mid to late thirties, which makes sense if he has children 6 and 8. Reducing the age difference makes Nellie's attraction more plausible. Asolo's director, Rob Ruggiero, has clearly been influenced by Lincoln Center's production, as will most productions for the next 10 years or more.

Asolo Rep made no secret that this production of South Pacific was going to be a smaller version, only 19 cast members and eight in the orchestra pit playing new orchestrations by Brad Haak. I feared being underwhelmed, but it is a triumph. Playing Emil is Ben Davis, who last year played Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat. I am astounded at his ability to go from last year's high baritone, possibly even tenorish, part to the deep bass-baritone required here. The part is often cast from the world of opera. Mr. Davis' singing is rich and full in his two solos, "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine." Coming more from musical theater, his acting is equally strong. Kelly Felthous plays "knucklehead" Nellie Forbush, a confirmed "Cockeyed Optimist." She is vivacious and youthfully exuberant at all the right times and knocks "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and "A Wonderful Guy" right out of the musical comedy ballpark. Asolo is lucky to secure Loretta Ables Sayre to repeat her Tony nominated performance as Bloody Mary. Rarely is someone who is capable of singing the haunting "Bali Hai" also able to put over the comedy that is such an important part of the role, but Ms. Sayre does. Anthony Festa has the matinee idol looks and beautiful high baritone necessary for Lieutenant Joe Cable. Benjamin Howes capably handles the comedy role of Luther Billis. The ensemble and small roles are all well cast. While I would certainly love to have four more Seabees and two or three more nurses, such numbers as "Nothing Like a Dame" and "Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," which have important contributions from the chorus, don't suffer.

The excellence of the entire production is a tribute to Rob Ruggiero, who has directed this show several times recently, including at the St. Louis Muny which has 5,000 seats and where the production was definitely not small. Choreography by Ralph Perkins is fine throughout, especially in "Bloody Mary" and "Nothing Like a Dame." The scenic design by Michael Schweikardt is spectacular—a revolving stage functions for Emil's patio and the beach, with set pieces to define the shower Nellie uses to wash her hair, the stage for the "Thanksgiving Follies," and other locations. Costumes by Leon Dobkowski are exceptional with lots of attention paid to the military uniforms, except for a conspicuous lack of medals on those of the higher officers. The backdrop of the ocean makes for spectacular vistas in the ever-changing lighting design of John Lasiter. All of these elements are so fine that it might be possible to rent this production out to other theaters.

The music direction is in the capable hands of William Waldrop. He conducts with great sensitivity to both the romantic sweep and comic high jinx of Rodgers' score.

I can't imagine a better way to open a new season than a wonderful production of South Pacific.

Asolo Repertory Theater presentsSouth Pacific, through December 28, 2014, at the Mertz Theater in the FSU Center. 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, Florida. Box Office (941) 351-8000. For more information visit

Addendum: I paid a return visit to South Pacific, almost mid-run. I am delighted to report that the production continues to be lively, especially the men's chorus numbers "Bloody Mary" and "Nothing Like a Dame." The performances by Ben Davis and Kelly Felthous remain fresh as do important supporting roles played by Loretta Ables Sayre, Benjamin Howes and Anthony Festa. Everything about the performance was as good as the first time I saw it.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Jerome: Zachary Jones or Patrick Enright
Ngana: Sophia Cavalluzzi or Milaan T. Smith
Henry/James Hayes,Sailor: Gregory L. Williams*
Ensign Nellie Forbush: Kelly Felthous*
Emile De Becque: Ben Davis*
Bloody Mary: Loretta Ables Sayre*
Seabee Morty Weiss: Matthew Amira*
Bob McCaffrey, Sailor: Ryan Cavanaugh*
Seabee Billy Whitmore/Lt. Buzz Adams: Steven Grant Douglas
Luther Billis: Benjamin Howes*
Professor: Jeffrey Todd Parrott
Stewpot: Matt Faucher*
Lt. Joseph Cable: Anthony Festa*
Cmdr. William Harbison: Jim Sorensen*
Capt. George Brackett: Peter Reardon*
Ensign Dinah Murphy: Meggie Cansler*
Ensign Genevieve Marshall, nurse: Laura Gepford
Ensign Cora Macrae, nurse: Willow Schneider
Liat: Autumn Ogawa*
Female Swing: Gracie Lee Brown
Male Swing: Brian Owen

* Denotes Member of Actor's Equity Association

Band (in alphabetical order)
Teri Booth: Woodwinds I
Matthew Dendy: Violin Alternate
Carlann Evans: Violin
Diane Lezman: Cello
Theresa MacDonnell: French Horn
Bradley Shoemaker: Woodwinds 2
Thomas E. Suta: Percussion
Bill Swartzbaugh: Bass
William Waldrop: Conductor/Piano

Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Orchestrations & Arrangements: Brad Haak
Choreography: Ralph Perkins
Music Direction: William Waldrop
Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt
Costume Design: Leon Dobkowski
Lighting Design: John Lasiter
Sound Design: Michael Miceli
Hair/Wig * Make-up Design: Michelle Hart
Production Stage Manager: Kelly A. Borgia*
Dramaturg: Lauryn Sasso

Photo: Cliff Roles

--William S. Oser

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