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South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Ellen Isom
STAGES St. Louis
September 13, 2017

Leah Berry, Michael Halling
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is an undisputed musical theatre classic. It’s been performed at all levels, from Broadway to regional theatre to community theatre, many times since it first debuted in 1949. I know it fairly well, as I’ve seen several different productions and filmed versions. Now, STAGES St. Louis is closing out its 2017 season with this historic show, bringing it to the stage with a fine cast and striking production values that keep the story fresh and timely even though it’s inextricably tied to a specific time and place.

This is a World War II story, set on a tropical island where a US Navy unit is stationed. Nellie Forbush (Leah Berry) is a young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, who has found herself falling in love with the older, sophisticated French planter Emile DeBecque (Michael Halling), who has lived on the island for many years but harbors some secrets from his past. As Nellie finds out more about Emile, she is forced to confront her own ingrained prejudices. There’s also Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Matthew Hydzik), newly assigned to the island on a secret mission that involves Emile. Lt. Cable becomes fascinated with the nearby island of Bali Ha’i following the suggestions of Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary (Joanne Javien), who introduces Cable to her daughter, Liat (Sydney Jones) with hopes that he will marry her. Meanwhile, the Seabees led by Luther Billis (Mark DiConzo) try to make the most of their time on the island and yearn for the company of women. There’s romance, intrigue, comedy, and heartrending drama, as well as the important underlying message of confronting personal and systemic racism and prejudice. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s memorable score features classics such as the upbeat “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”, and “Honey Bun”, as well as the romantic “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime” and the pointed “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.

The roles here are played well. Berry’s Nellie is appropriately perky and likable, and her chemistry with Halling’s suave Emile is strong. She is generally better with the lighter moments than the more serious ones, though. Halling is charming and especially strong acting-wise, although his voice isn’t quite as powerful as other Emiles I’ve seen, particularly on his key number “This Nearly Was Mine”. Hydzik is fine as the conflicted cable, with a strong voice and good chemistry with the excellent Jones as Liat. Javien is a particularly strong Bloody Mary, as well. DiConzo as Billis is also memorable, and there’s a strong ensemble for support, particularly in the form of the male chorus of Seabees. The group numbers such as “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” are especially strong here.

The overall 1940’s World War II atmosphere is well maintained in this production, with striking visuals provided by set designer James Wolk and lighting designer Sean M. Savoie. Garth Dunbar’s costumes are also excellent, lending an extra air of authenticity to the proceedings. This is a smaller-scale production compared to the last one I saw (at the Muny), and that helps to provide a more intimate atmosphere to the show’s more serious moments as well as a genuine sense of camaraderie to the Thanksgiving concert sequence in Act 2.

STAGES has done well by this celebrated musical. With a good cast and energetic staging, as well as that classic score, and a message that resonates today as much as it did years ago, this is a production that’s well worth seeing. It’s a good way to close out an excellent season at STAGES.

Joanne Javien, Matthew Hydzik and Cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting South Pacific at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 8, 2017.

 

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