'South Pacific' enchants audiences into listening to lessons that still ring true
STAGES St. Louis closes out their season with the crowd-pleasing favorite South Pacific. The musical, set during World War Two introduces audiences to a crew stationed on an island in the South Pacific region, away from the main battlefields of the War, but providing support, information, and care to soldiers. Engaging performances and a light as a feather tone enable the show to impart some serious lessons about accepting others and getting along.
Ensign Nellie Forbush, our leading lady, a nurse stationed on the island and played with aplomb and spunk by Leah Berry, has recently met and fallen in love with Emile de Becque, a native Frenchman who has lived on the island for years, played by Michael Halling. Their romance is told not only against the backdrop of the war, but also the lore of the islands, particularly the legendary Bali Ha'i, described as a paradise just a short boat ride away from the base. These are the islands where sailors and soldiers go to relax, to recover from injuries, or to find comfort and friendship from the locals.
Without stating so overtly, the affair between the nurse and businessman stands in contrast to the usually temporary liaisons between local, brown skinned women and the predominantly white American forces. An often-overlooked aspect of the musical is how the show successfully interjects questions about racism and segregation in a way that fits, contextually, with the plot. In order to find love and happiness, both Ensign Forbush and Lieutenant Joseph Cable, played with an all-American appeal by Matthew Hydzik, must acknowledge and overcome the casual racism of their upbringing.
Berry is effusive and always optimistic as Forbush, with a beguiling charm that almost excuses some of her behavior, and her voice capably handles the score and range of the character. Halling is a bit mysterious as the Frenchman, with a voice that smoothes over all misgivings the moment he begins to sing. Hydzik gives Cable range and emotional depth. His scenes with Sydney Jones, as Liat, Bloody Mary's daughter and the object of Cable's conflicted affection, move from heartwarming to heartbreaking.
The supporting cast is as impressive as the leads. Joanne Javien is conniving and commanding as Bloody Mary, her rendition of "Bali Ha'i" is at once alluring and haunting. Spencer Jones and Elle Wesley are charming as de Becque's children, their opening "Dites-Moi" perfectly sets the tone and temperament of the show. Mark Diconzo delights as Luther Billis, whether he's clowning around with the guys or mooning over Nurse Forbush. Myles McHale, Chris Tipp, John Flack, Steve Isom, and Kari Ely are among the standouts in an all-round capable cast.
One of the other notable elements of the musical that is often forgotten is that not everyone gets a happily ever after. The sense of loss of life, as well as the cost of war in lives and dollars, is referenced frequently throughout the show. And prejudices that remain today are emphasized by the relationship between Cable and Liat. The company stages their liaison in a gentle, strictly PG love scene, but the follow up scenes, when Bloody Mary tries to negotiate a marriage, when Cable wrestles with very real feelings he's been taught to reject, and when Liat has her heart broken, are poignant moments that deserve to linger. Even the way Forbush struggles with her feelings for de Becque and his children feels current and worth reflection.
Filled with memorable songs and motivated conflict, the plot moves along well, though I wish some of the pacing were picked up. There are times when the show seems to slow down unnecessarily. I also expected more from the choreography and execution of the songs. The stage, light, sound, and costume design all suit the show, with costumes that nicely reflect the period and occasionally add to the humor. The familiar and well-known songs are nicely turned, but feel a bit lacking in excitement and emotional connection, and there are times when it feels the cast is "going through the routine."
All in all, however, this production of South Pacific, running through October 8, 2017, is a fine rendition of classic American musical entertainment. The cast and crew at STAGES bring the story and themes to life, guaranteeing a pleasant evening. There just seems to be a little something lacking.