Wednesday, May 2, 2018

SDMT “South Pacific” Soars In Spite of Itself With Robert J. Townsend In The Lead.


San Diego Musical Theatre is currently mounting Oscar Hammerstein II and Josh Logan (book) and Richard Rogers (music) musical play (the first of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals produced by Rogers and Hammerstein themselves) “South Pacific”, as adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Tales of the South Pacific”, by James A. Michener, based on anecdotes of a real life U.S. Commander stationed on the island. It is now at The Horton Grand Theatre through May 27th. 

“South Pacific”, set in 1945 four year after the end of WWII, opened on Broadway in 1949 to rave reviews. It went on to become, then, the second longest Broadway run for a musical.

Close to seventy years later it is generating lengthy dialogues debating the pros and cons of its political correctness juxtaposed on everything we wanted to see changed from what was then a cultural breakthrough by bringing racially charged topics to the fore and showing them for what they were.
Robert J. Townsend and Carolyn Agan ("Some Enchanted Evening")
Now the debate is on the casting of whites in the roles of non-white characters, to not mounting the show at all, to Brooks Atkinson’s quote that ‘If the country still has the taste to appreciate a masterly love song, “Some Enchanted Evening” it ought to become reasonably immortal’; we are at it again.

To say that “South Pacific” is a gem would be an understatement.  To underestimate the importance of the groundbreaking topics covered then, in this musical play, when this country still stomached Jim Crow Laws (and Gentleman's Agreement’s) would be criminal. The music and score are breathtaking and contain some of the best of the best of this musical genre and for future generations not to have a look would be an injustice.

The lyrics are more than relevant to move the story forward without it having a huge chorus of men and women dancing through the big numbers that, when left on their own more than convey the emotional and humorous ties to the overall messages. Choreographer Randy Slovacek does justice with his oft times errant Seabees and his well disciplined Navy nurses.

Kirsten Chandler’s staging on Mike Buckley’s island looking background set framed with mesh netting and gorgeous sunsets sets the stage for rumble, tumble and trouble among the service men longing for a ‘dame’ any dame while a small unit of Navy Nurses strut and march in formation in their swim suits, island shorts and halters (Janet Pitcher).

Off on another part of the island is Emile de Becque’s solitary villa atop a mountain ridge where his two children and manservant Henry (Ryan Burtahog), who tends the youngsters and household, live.
Bobby Chiu, Robert J. Townsend and Isabella Pruter
There is trouble in paradise though. Both the artist Townsend, who soars in his role as the French expat and wealthy planter Emile de Becque and the character de Becque take it all in stride as if it is another day in paradise. Impeccably cast and wonderfully executed, Townsend, on top of his game and his role as de Becque, is a perfect choice.  

The de Becque children, Ngana and Jerome (adorablezz Isabella Pruter and Bobby Chiu), who only speak French, speaks to the fact that he fled France as a teenager under dubious conditions (he killed a man) and as a family their primary language is French.

That de Becque killed a man in his youth is a curiosity to Nellie but not a major concern at the outset. Yet the fact that his children’s skin color is darker than hers (their mother was a darker-skinned Polynesian women) has Nellie in a tailspin. She hails from Little Rock, Arkansas and that would be a stab in the back for her family to take.

Race then becomes of tantamount importance, when it casts a shadow on the relationship with the lily white Nellie Forbush, (Carolyn Agan “Cockeyed Optimist” “Wonderful Guy”) the Navy nurse who has to ‘wash him out of her hair’ to forget she loves him.

 Lt. Joseph Cable (Casey Johnson), who falls instantly in love with ‘Bloody Mary’s beautiful Tonkinese daughter, Liat (a lovely Catrina Tureul) falls victim to his upbringing as well. Arriving on the island later in the game to undertake a dangerous mission, Bloody Mary falls all over trying to get him on 'her island' to meet her daughter who she thinks is of marriageable age. 
Casey Johnson and Gigi Coddington
Mary wants to marry her off sooner rather than later.  The young girl becomes a pawn between the two (“Happy Talk”) and is reduced to very little ‘talk’ but a beautifully choreographed hand dance of “Happy Talk”.   

After falling for and being lulled into thinking he might marry Liat, he vehemently backs off claiming he could never marry a Tonkinese girl because of his family’s (upper class Blue Blood graduate of Princeton) prejudices, ergo the number that tells it all, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” is brilliant.

The story takes place, as you might have guessed, on two Pacific Islands during World War II where American sailors and their Seabees were stationed. Some off island spying and official Navy business takes place with Cable and de Becque teaming up to help locate the enemy, which at that time was the Japanese air force. No holds barred when the sailors talk about the ‘Japs’.
Nellie and the nurses
And here is where reality and Broadway meet as we trace the antics of the bored Seabees criss crossing with a nasty war raging in the Pacific.  

These Seabees deal in makeshift goods sold and bartered to them by the ever large presence of the formidable Gigi Coddington’s Bloody Mary’ who lures them to her island, the forbidden island of Bali Ha’i while Luther Billis tries to con the officers on the island into all kinds of deals to enrich his pockets.

The Seabee frolicking and a Thanksgiving Day Show for entertaining the troops, (“Nothing Like A Dame”) is one of those numbers, that if you ever saw past productions, this particular show stopper is one you will not forget. In fact it is one you look forward to seeing again and SDMC does not disappoint.
Agustine Welles and the nurses
Street smart and funny, but a bit over the top Agustine Welles takes on the coveted role of Luther Billis, the wheeler/dealer Seabee. In his Thanksgiving Day skit he straps on two good sized coconut shells around his chest, a grass skirt, loads of makeup, a wig and does his hula number to lots of laughs that brings the house down and is even a serum to ease the sorrow Nelly feels for her self- imposed breakup with the handsome and clueless de Becque

And what would an evening of Thanksgiving fun be without a male dance chorus of Seebees that whoop it up in the background giving the appearance of a holiday fun night.

Billis’ head over heels crush on Nellie Forbush combined with the Bloody Mary character each provide the comic relief in an otherwise well thought out plot that involves some serious and life altering decision-making and conflicts regarding the character’s relationships with race; the non white one co-mingling with the white in particular.
Agustine Welles and Carolyn Agan
With an all around competent cast including Townsend’s de Becque and his counterpart Carolyn Agan’s Nellie in perfect pitch and sync with each other, San Diego Musical Theatre doesn’t disappoint after sixteen years of producing musicals.  

Musical director Don LeMaster’s rich 14 piece orchestra always enhances, Michelle Miles’ lighting design helps especially on Bali Ha’i and Kevin Anthenill’s sound design complements the small theater’s surroundings and Peter Herman’s wigs keep the focus dated in the 1940’s.  

And how can we ever forget the score: “Younger Than Springtime”, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, “This Nearly Was Mine”, “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk”, “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man”, “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame”, “Honey Bun”, “Dietes-Moi” and of course “Some Enchanted Evening”.
Carolyn Agan and Robert J. Townsend
It might take us another so many years to smooth out the wrinkles in “South Pacific” but for now San Diego Musical Theater gets a two thumbs up for its overall quality work in bringing to San Diego audiences Broadway hits of the past and present.

Enjoy.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through May 27th
Organization: San Diego Musical Theatre
Phone: 858-560-5740
Production Type: Musical
Where: 444 Fourth Ave, Downtown S.D. 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Web: sdmt.org
Venue: Horton Grand Theatre
Photo: Ken Jacques

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