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Friday, September 07, 2018

Tuneful ‘South Pacific’ Makes a Big Splash at Olney

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 plot.

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 nurse friends.

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 tenderly.

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 is outstanding.

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 ambiance.

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 visiting online

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