The Pittsburgh CLO wraps up their 70th season at the Benedum with an enchanting production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece South Pacific.
On a remote tropical island base, navy officers, enlisted men and nurses await their call to battle. Ensign Nellie Forbush, a country girl from Little Rock, meets and quickly falls for Emile de Becque, a handsome older Frenchman and plantation owner. Arriving on the island for a secret mission is Philadelphia’s Lieutenant Joe Cable. He is presented with Liat, a lovely young island girl from Bali Ha’i.
All the while, preparations for war continue amidst the endless waiting, with Luther Billis and the Seabees along with Bloody Mary and Tonkinese locals scheming on fun ways to make money and beat the unending boredom of life on this steamy island.
Love, passion and good times prevail until Nellie and the Lieutenant’s racial prejudices bring their newfound loves crashing down like a bomb dropped upon them. Nellie learns her French fiancée has two children from a previous relationship with a ‘colored” woman who has since died. Lt. Cable struggles with the thought of bringing a Tonkinese girl home, no matter how beautiful she is or how much he loves her. As the battle draws near Nellie and Cable come to their senses realizing love trumps prejudice.
Part of what makes South Pacific so satisfying and qualifies it for masterpiece status is the rich complexity of its characters. As we get to know them, their internal conflicts of character provide the sense of drama to what otherwise would just be a fun musical. A key element to the success of the show is the audience’s ability to fall in love with Nellie early in the first act. She has to come across the sweet optimistic girl next door. Erika Henningsen’s Nellie captures that essence nicely, but with perhaps just a bit too much sophistication for a girl from the sticks. But by the end of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” she’s won us over. Ben Davis gives a strong performance as Emile, even though originally the role is intended to be performed by a bass rather than a tenor. Genson Blimline’s scheming Seabee Luther Billis provides much of the comic relief for the show and is a nice counter to Nellie’s relationship with Emile. Loretta Ables Sayre is the consummate spunky Bloody Mary, having played the role hundreds of times since her debut in the Lincoln Center revival. Clearly a favorite with audience, applause was the loudest for her at the curtain call. Of all the characters, Lt. Cable is the least sympathetic. The decision to cut “My Girl Back Home” from the show was no favor to James Snyder as Cable. This song serves to soften his character and make him so much more than just the rich young man from Princeton. The ensemble brings joy, fun and energy to “There is Nothing Like a Dame”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man” and “Honey Bun”.
The Scenic Design is a cut down version of the Lincoln Center production designed by Michael Yeargan. It translates well from the massive thrust stage at Lincoln Center to the more compact Benedum proscenium staging. Paul Miller’s Lighting Design worked well except for a couple of times in the second act leaving me wishing for a bit more visibility.
South Pacific’s staging is iconic; so much you just can’t really mess with a lot. Linda Goodrich adds a few nice touches and misses a couple of goose bump opportunities at the closing scenes. Mark Esposito’s choreography works well in the smaller space particularly in “Wash That Man” and “Honey Bun”.
Kudos to the CLO for using the large twenty-two-piece orchestra including the subtle Harp score signatures for Nellie played by Frances Duffy. Music Director Tom Helm brings to life one of the most beautiful scores in American musical theatre.
As well done and enchanting as this production is, one element that is missing which the original Broadway Director Josh Logan felt was critical – lust. Nellie and Emile have agreed to marry after knowing each other for only two weeks, but the performances don’t convey the kind of passion and “I can’t keep my hands off of you” longing that makes the two-week romance totally believable. In “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” the dance intensity doesn’t match the desire and longing the sailors have for the nurses as they jog past. Cable and Liat’s relationship doesn’t come across as strong enough for him to abandon his girl back home and the expectations he has been promised.
That being said, these are subtle nuances that develop over time through the rehearsal process, previews and the show’s run. Considering the CLO’s tight production schedule, this South Pacific is definitely worth a visit. It is telling after sixty-seven years we are still struggling with issues of race, equality and class. As Emile so eloquently says “I know what you are fighting against, but what are you fighting for?”
Special thank to the Pittsburgh CLO for complimentary press tickets. The Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, now through August 14th at the Benedum Center. For tickets and more information click here.