The moment the overture starts to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s epic musical, South Pacific, we know we are in good hands. For on the scrim, emblazoned with the title of the show, appear real snapshots of sailors and nurses who served in that remote part of the world during World War II. And as the snapshots fade, various tableaus of the actors appear behind the scrim. Obviously, director Charles Abbott knows how magical these stage curtains are and how to show them off to their best advantage. The montage is very touching and brings home the point that James A. Michener’s stories, upon which this musical is loosely based, were about real men and women who served in the armed forces when America was at war.
Heroine Ensign Nellie Forbush, an optimistic young nurse, falls in love with the older, sophisticated, French planter, Emile de Becque. Though a September May romance, this is not the only complication that the lovers have to overcome. Emile has two children by his first wife who was Polynesian, and Nellie, who is from the south, finds this objectionable. Conversely, the young, newly assigned Lt. Cable becomes involved with Liat, a Tonkinese island girl and cannot consent to marry her due to his own and his family’s prejudices.
One cannot forget how many great songs have come from this Tony Award-winning musical. To name a few: “Some Enchanted Evening”, “A Wonderful Guy”. “Younger Than Springtime”, “Honey Bun”, “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Bali Ha’i”.
There is no denying that the Walnut knows how to do musicals. But this time, Mr. Abbott has really gotten it right. And Michelle Gaudette’s choreography strikes just the right note of realism and kooky fun. There are so many terrific performances it’s hard to know where to start. So, let’s start at the top. With a French accent that is trés charmant, a deep, baritone voice that is thrilling, Paul Schoeffler is la piéce de resistance as Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner and widower who falls for the younger Nellie. Kate Fahrner is scrumptious as Nellie Forbush, (a naive girl from Arkansas) exhibiting a clear, buoyant vocal quality and a glowing stage presence. Ben Michael gives an endearing performance as Lt. Joseph Cable showing off a sweet tenor voice. Fran Prisco is a scene stealer as the incorrigible Luther Billis and Lori Tan Chinn wins the prize for getting the most laughs as Bloody Mary. Dan Olmstead and Jeffrey Coonshould not be overlooked as the straight men, Commander Harbison and Captain Brackett who help to move the plot along. Neither can we forget the great men’s chorus who will regale you with a rousing “There is Nothing Like a Dame” nor the nurses who sing and monkey around to “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”.
The scenic design by Robert Andrew Kovach displays a lush and tropical background to a rustic naval station on a pacific island. And the love scene which takes place in the forest on the island of Bali Ha’i with Lt. Cable and Liat is magical, graced with a shimmering waterfall and a resplendent starry sky. The 11-piece orchestra is top notch as are all the musical numbers under the direction of John Daniels.
South Pacific is one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most endearing works and this current production at the Walnut does it more than justice. It’s a hundred and one pounds of fun – so don’t miss it!