The 1949 classic musical is adapted from James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize Winning book, Tales of the South Pacific.
CBS News recently did a profile piece on the “Renaissance of Theater on Long Island.” One of the theaters/acting companies featured in the news story was the Elmont Memorial Library Theatre – Home of Plaza Theatricals, Nassau County’s only professional equity theater. On October 6, the curtain rose on the first production of their premiere season, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. I had the privilege of seeing the production during its closing weekend and all I can say is it was “some enchanted evening.”
The 1949 classic musical is adapted from James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize Winning book, Tales of the South Pacific, which tackles, head-on, controversial topics such as prejudice and the politics of war. Set during World War II, on a Pacific island, the story focuses on two parallel love stories. American nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush falls in love at first sight with local plantation owner, Frenchman Emile de Becque. Newly arrived Lieutenant Joe Cable falls in love at first sight with Liat, an innocent local Tonkinese girl. Interestingly enough, these relationships are not necessarily challenged by the looming threat of attacks from the Japanese, but are instead threatened and affected by American attitudes toward race. World War II began in 1939 and ended in 1945. Racism, it seems, is unfortunately a never-ending war. One would think after 50 years of Civil Rights, racism would be a thing of the past. If you look back on the past 4 years, you can clearly see that this is not the case.
Kevin Harrington staged an exquisite production. I thought his addition of his tribute to the troops at the top of the show was a very nice touch. The 20 plus ensemble performed a well-choreographed march, a la Radio City Rockettes, and presented the flag. A stirring acapella performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” followed. Immediately after, the fantastic 16-piece orchestra, led by Alex Harrington, brought Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beautiful score to life. In my opinion, South Pacific is one of the best scores in the history of American Musical theater. It is, as far as I know, one of the only scores to have every song in the show covered by popular artists. Brett Martinez designed a beautiful, palm tree bordered set. His set and backdrops echoed a Bob Ross painting. Glen Davis provided brilliant mood lighting throughout the show. Day scenes were backlit with crystal blue emulating the beautiful surrounding Pacific Ocean. Purple was used to help Bloody Mary entrance Lt. Cable to visit “Bali Hai”. I particularly loved the warm pink used to imbue sunsets. The true cherry on top of this production was Barbara Kirby’s authentic costumes. She truly captured the time period with her brilliant choices. The trio of Martinez, Davis and Kirby was able to brilliantly convey the setting and time period of this magnificent piece.
At my performance, I had the honor of seeing Kate Wesler perform as Nellie; Madison Claire Parks originated the role for this production. Ms. Wesler really captures the wholesomeness of Nellie. She truly exudes Nellie’s inner conflict; she wants to be a devoted companion to Emile, but at the same time she is conflicted with the racist ideals she was raised on back in Little Rock, Arkansas. Little did Michener, Hammerstein or book-writer John Logan know Nellie’s hometown of Little Rock would be the first town to implement integration in schools during the Civil Rights Movement. I just wish Ms. Wesler would have really washed her hair during “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.” It’s so symbolic to see Nellie washing her hair during this number. Using cool whip-like suds to emulate the “cleansing” really diminishes the message.
The true star of this production is James Sasser as Emilie de Becque. I’ve been writing reviews on Long Island theater for BroadwayWorld for 5 years now. Mr. Sasser by far has the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard on Long Island. I had chills down my spine during each of his musical numbers. His baritone is gloriously rich and powerful and does “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” justice. Plaza’s next production is going to be Man of La Mancha. Based on his performance as Emile, Mr. Sasser would knock Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote out of the park if given the opportunity. Hint, hint, Mr. Harrington. Andrew Brewer brings a smolder to Lt. Cable. Jordan Bell does provide laughs and brings great warmth to his Luther Billis. One of the two scene stealers was Peter McClurg as Captain Brackett. Mr. McClurg’s delivery reminded me of Lee J. Cobb. Much like his character, he truly commanded the stage whenever on.
The other scene stealer of the evening was Lydia Gaston as Bloody Mary, an island wheeler-dealer and Liat’s mother. Ms. Gaston brought new depth to her character. She not only mystifies Lt. Cable, but the whole audience with her performance of “Bali Hai.” I was ready to book a flight to Hawaii myself. What was particularly haunting was her performance of “Happy Talk” in the beginning of Act II. Normally, that song is viewed as a song to sway Lt. Cable to fall even more in love with Liat. If you truly analyze the lyrics and, in this case, how the song is performed, it’s truly about a mother’s desperation. All Bloody Mary wants is a truly happy life for her daughter. At the time this number is performed, Liat is “promised” to a rich, much older, French plantation owner (Not Emile). Deep down, Bloody Mary knows Liat would be happier with the much younger, strapping Lt. Cable. The song essentially involves Bloody Mary “pimping”, for lack of a better word, her daughter out to Cable. Sadly, the relationship is never meant to be due to Lt. Cable’s “carefully taught” racist upbringing. The depth Ms. Gaston was able to exhibit with this role is a true indicator of what a great actress she is.
Plaza’ Theatricals’ production of South Pacific was as close to Broadway as Nassau County will ever get. I can’t wait to see what they will do with their future productions. Plaza’s next show will be Man of La Mancha,Nov 20, 2021-Dec 12, 2021. After that will be the Long Island premieres of The Color Purple, Mar 12, 2022-Apr 3, 2022.
As seen in BroadwayWorld.com