To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, when a person is tired of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, one is tired of life. How many times have we seen this glorious musical, from Broadway to regional productions? Many. And how many times have I played its captivating music on the piano? Thousands.
So what does the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s production have to offer? Plenty.
First and foremost is a full professional cast of 28 that would rival any Broadway assemblage. Then, the show plays to the Maltz’s strength: classic musicals that are not road shows, but original from the bottom up, casting, scenic design, costumes, musical arrangements, and expert directing. Finally, the secret ingredient: an intimacy which is unusual for a big production. We saw South Pacific at the Kravis years ago. Although excellent, we’re talking about a theatre which seats more than 2,000 and seeing a full-size Broadway-designed musical is not the same as enjoying the intimacy of a 600 seat Maltz. The music, the performances, the sheer energy simply reaches out and envelops the audience. In fact, the performers are up and down the aisles, often interacting with the audience.
Then of course it is the greatness of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and their place in transforming the musical genre from merely a series of songs loosely tied together. Their groundbreaking Oklahoma! solidified the importance of “the book” in the Broadway musical, with music, songs, dance all integral to the plot. Plots became more complex such as in South Pacific, two main story lines interwoven, each tackling a subject which was taboo before, interracial relations, all of this against the backdrop of WW II in the South Pacific.
It was based on a series of interrelated short stories, the Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, with the book for the musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. The importance of the themes was underscored by its winning The Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950, a rare distinction for a musical. Its relevancy today is undiminished. Its place as a classic among American musicals has been assured by the glorious melodies of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics, irrefutably one of the best musicals of the twentieth century.
When Erin Davie as Nellie belts out "A Cockeyed Optimist" at the beginning of the show you might as well be sitting in the front row of a Broadway production. Hammerstein’s lyrics and Rodgers bouncy melody announces her typically apple pie American attitude towards life, in spite of the war surrounding her, Davie giving her introductory song a special cheery oomph. Davie’s voice is a sweet soprano, but what she might lack in vocal power is more than compensated for by how spellbindingly she sells a song with her irresistible stage presence.
Segue to the other co-star, Nicholas Rodriguez as Emile, whose duet with Nellie in "Twin Soliloquies" establishes his character and showcases Rodriquez’s rich baritone while alternating with Nellie’s dreamy lyrics. This is an ardent falling-in-love duet. Then Rodriquez tenderly delivers what is perhaps Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most famous love song, "Some Enchanted Evening" recalling how he and Nellie met.
The stage is set for a more upbeat number sung by the talented Sailors, Seabees and Marines, "Bloody Mary" followed by the rousingly iconic "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." We’re talking pure testosterone-high- energy in these production numbers with impressive choreography by Connor Gallagher.
Bloody Mary, played by Jodi Kimura sings the ballad "Bali Ha'i" with an exotic dreamy quality. Kimura knows how to play to the audience and she’s the center of attention when on stage. The moment she sees the other major character Lieutenant Cable played by Stephen Mark Lukas, Kimura articulates what the audience sees, telling a Seabee that “you not sexy like Lieutenant.” Lukas’ rendition of the beautiful ballad, “Younger than Springtime” sung to Liat, Bloody Mary’s daughter, is especially memorable.
His other major song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" is the one which cuts to the core of South Pacific, a world torn apart by war and more thematically in this show, racism. It was like no other song before in a Broadway musical. Lukas performs the song with anger and self loathing, not being able to shake his inbred prejudices.
Christian Marriner who plays seaman Luther Billis, “a sailor who bullies, bribes, and charms his way”, offers a show stopping performance in “Honey Bun.” He performed this role in the national touring company of South Pacific which explains his owning this part with such assurance and bravado, bringing forth rousing applause from the audience.
The concluding scene, Emile returning from a dangerous mission and discovers Nellie singing "Dites-Moi" with his children, Ngana and Jerome (played by Hana Roberts and Ray Zurawin), is a guaranteed tearjerker as Emile completes the song. He and Nellie rush into each other’s arms. She has made the transition from being “as corny as Kansas in August” to knowing “I have found me a wonderful guy” (in spite of his being previously married to a Polynesian). Love conquers all, even ingrained prejudice.
The show is performed under the award-winning director Gordon Greenberg’s extraordinary expertise, whose credits include Broadway and PBS Great Performances' show, Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn and London's acclaimed West End revival of Guys and Dolls. He directed the Maltz Theatre's critically-acclaimed hit production of Barnum in 2009. With so many performers on stage it is a feat to direct South Pacific, with the production moving flawlessly, the invisible director’s hand at work.
The Maltz South Pacific production especially succeeds in stunning scenic designs by Paul Tate dePoo III, with scene changes on the fly and little interruption. Costume designer Tristan Raines reveals a creative and colorful imagination, yet period perfect. Lighting designer Rob Denton bathes the stage in exotic Island colors. And the 13 piece LIVE orchestra under the musical direction of Eric Alsford delivers the exceptional accompaniment that a musical of this caliber deserves.
And so once again a great musical from the mid twentieth century has been brightly polished and finds relevancy today. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre production of South Pacific is not to be missed.
Photos in order of appearance:Erin Davie and Nicholas Rodriguez, Photo by Alicia Donelan; Surrounded by Seabees, Jodie Kimura portrays Bloody Mary, Photo by Charlotte Donelan; Shea Renne and Stephen Mark Lukas, Photo by Alicia Donelan; Stephen Mark Lukas and Shea Renne, Photo by Zak Bennett; Erin Davie and Nicholas Rodriguez (center) with Hana Roberts and Ray Zurawin, Photo by Charlotte Donelan; Erin Davie portrays Nellie Forbush, Photo by Alicia Donelan