|Photo: Stan Barouh|
The iconic musical South Pacific is as well known for its lusty
melodic score and loveable characters as it is for its controversial
progressive stance on racism and tolerance. The issue of prejudice in our
society has always been in the forefront of American history and culture; sadly,
it continues today when white nationalism once again has reared its ugly head. #
The 1949 hit show, which captured
10 Tony Awards including Best Musical and a Pulitzer for Drama in 1950, is
making its Olney Theatre Center debut, kicking off its 81st season. Under
the direction of Alan Muraoka and musical direction of Kristen Lee Rosenfeld,
an exceptionally talented cast and crew does justice to this classic whose music
was composed by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and the book by
Hammerstein and Joshua Logan.
The show brings laughter and
tears almost alternately. You will find an upbeat or comedic scene, followed by
an intensely dramatic one. This pattern continues
throughout causing emotions to bob up and down as if you’re on a small craft navigating
the ocean’s waves. It’s not a criticism; in fact, it’s a strength because it
provides context and balance and keeps the audience engaged in the emotional
The legendary Rodgers and
Hammerstein team crafted such a spectacular catalogue of songs in South Pacific, it is nearly impossible to
decide which of them is the most memorable. Generally speaking, in musicals a key song leaves members of the audience still humming
it as they exit the theater. In South
Pacific, you can hum a medley—they’re all that good—and many became standards.
“Some Enchanted Evening,” “There
Is Nothin’ Like A Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Happy
Talk,” “Bali Ha’i,” “Bloody Mary,” “Dites-Moi,” and “Younger Than Springtime”
are among the highlights.
Then there is “You’ve Got To Be
Carefully Taught,” which is performed midway through the second act. This is the one number that generated controversy
because it clearly points out that racism and prejudice are not innate traits
but people are taught to hate. The line preceding the song was racism “is not
born in you! It happens after you’re born.”
Some had objected to the song’s
message and others questioned its appropriateness for musical theatre. It was vilified in the south as well as other
segregated areas when the production went on tour in 1950.
|Jessica Lauren Ball and William Michals|
Photo: Stan Barouh
Set on an island in the South
Pacific during World War II, the saga of two couples in which white prejudice
against Polynesian people provides the underlying drama in the plot. Ensign Nellie Forbush (Jessica Lauren Ball) is
a nurse stationed on the island who falls in love with an older expatriate from
France and plantation owner Emile de Becque (William Michals).
She had agreed to marry Emile
until she found out that he was the father of two small children whose now
deceased mother was Polynesian.
In another plotline, Marine Lt.
Joseph Cable (Alex Prakken) arrives on the island on a military mission and
while on brief leave to the nearby island of Bali-Ha’i, he immediately falls in
love with a young Polynesian woman Liat (Alexandra Palting). Sadness takes over
when Cable could not bring himself to marry Liat because of her ancestry.
This is when Emile and Cable—one
a victim of prejudice and the other the perpetrator of it—examine racism and in
which Cable sings “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”
Helen Hayes Award nominee and a
familiar performer at Olney, Jessica Lauren Ball is superb as Nellie. Strong
acting skills guide her through the dramatic scenes, and her vocals shine in
ballads and up-tempo numbers alike. “A Cockeyed Optimist” and a reprise of “Some
Enchanted Evening” are well-performed solos, and her duets with Mr. Michals and
group numbers are among the show’s best moments.
A particular standout in such a
group number is “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” whereby she had
pledged unsuccessfully to rid herself of Emile because she did not know enough
about him. This was prior to her learning about his children’s background. Ms.
Ball performs this highly entertaining show-stopping number with her other
For his part, Mr. Michals, a
veteran of Broadway, clearly displays his Broadway-caliber, powerful baritone
in every number he's involved with as he is one of the finest vocalists I’ve ever had the pleasure
of listening to on Olney’s main stage. His passion is evident with each word
and note; his voice resonating throughout the theater. Simply put, Mr. Michals’ renditions of “Some
Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine“ are sufficient alone to make you want to buy a ticket.
In addition, Mr. Michals’ acting
skills come through especially when Nellie can’t bring herself to marry
Emile. It is one of the most
emotionally-charged scenes of the show as Ms. Ball and Mr. Michals’ onstage
chemistry is first-rate.
As young Lt. Cable, Alex Prakken
performs quite proficiently. Though he
starts off a bit too reserved, Mr. Prakken warms up steadily as the show
progresses. The brief scenes with Liat are searing and impassioned. His sturdy tenor voice is outstanding in the
gorgeous ballad “Younger Than Springtime” making every tough note as well as in
the poignant aforementioned “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”
|Alexandra Palting and Alex Prakken Photo: Stan Barouh|
As wonderful as the leads are,
the supporting cast shines throughout. Cheryl J. Campo ably plays Bloody Mary,
one of the comedic characters in the show. A grass skirt seller on the island, Bloody
Mary is also Liat’s mother who strongly urges Cable to marry her as she
believes it’s Liat’s best shot at a better life. Ms. Campo’s retorts and
mannerisms provide much of the lighter sequences. She plays the role to the
hilt without going too far over the top, and her rendition of “Bali Ha’i” is sung
Another comic force is David Schlumpf
as Luther Billis, an entrepreneurial sailor.
He is total camp and plays the role extremely well. He along with his
fellow Seabees perform superbly in the snappy “There Is Nothing Like A Dame.”
Stephen F. Schmidt and Michael
Bunce effectively play Navy Captain George Brackett and Commander William
Harbison, respectively. Emile’s adorable children are played
by Daniela L. Martinez/Eliza Prymak and Nathan Pham/Hudson Prymak.
Rounding out the talented cast
with some playing multiple roles are Jay Frisby, Calvin Malone, David
Landstrom, Ryan Burke, Calvin McCullough, Chris Rudy, Kurt Boehm, Jessica
Bennett, Megan Tatum, Christina Kidd, and Amanda Kaplan. The Swings are Tiziano
D’Affuso and Teresa Danskey.
Dancing is not a significant feature in South Pacific. But for those numbers that require dancing, such as “There’s Nothing Like A Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” the choreography by Darren Lee is lively and well executed.
Christopher Youstra’s nine-piece
orchestra is exceptional in supporting the vocalists without overpowering them.
This blend of orchestration with vocal prowess delivering these magnificent songs
Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway’s
set is more artistic than extravagant. In keeping with the locale of the show,
there is a Polynesian feel to the scenery with its random criss-cross of bamboo
and aquatic hues. The nearby island of
Bali Ha’i is depicted like a painting but when the song is performed, a projection
of clouds sweeping over the island is shown—a nice touch.
The drop-down curtain,
containing a montage of symbols related to the plot with bamboo again being
featured, also set some scenes. Lighting
Designer Max Doolittle allowed light to shine on such symbols where
appropriate. For example, when the scene
shifted to a military event, spotlights are aimed on the Japanese and U.S.
flags. This curtain is also used to
allow set pieces and props to be moved around behind it for certain scenes while
the action takes place in front of it.
Mr. Doolittle’s lighting design,
Ryan Hickey’s sound design and Ivania Stack’s costume design employing a wide
array of period costumes and uniforms contribute mightily to the show’s
South Pacific is a
classic Broadway sensation, and the cast and crew at the Olney Theatre Center should
be proud of the talent and effort on display. Despite the serious subject of
racism and the sadness during various aspects of the show’s plot, this majestic
production excels on so many levels and is highly recommended.
Running time. Two hours and 45
minutes with an intermission.
South Pacific runs
through October 7 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road,
Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by