Love and War Take on New Meaning in OgunquitÂ's SOUTH PACIFIC
Based on the Lincoln Center Theater Production; music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan; adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener; direction reproduced by Shaun Kerrison; musical staging reproduced by Victor Wisehart; music director, Ken Clifton; original sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting design by Richard Latta; sound design by Jeremy Oleksa; hair and makeup by Leah Munsey-Konops; production stage manager, Tracey Woolley; costume coordination by Steven Weldon; technical direction by Geof Dolan
Ensign Nellie Forbush, Jennie Sophia; Emile de Becque, Branch Fields; Ngana, his daughter, Jasmine Nicole Reyes; Jerome, his son, Steven Sabastian Reyes Jr.; Henry, Gregory Williams; Bloody Mary, Christine Toy Johnson; Liat, her daughter, Hsin-Yu Liao; Bloody Mary's Assistants, Colby Kingston, Yamilah Saravong; Luther Billis, Ben Crawford; Stewpot, Joe Coots; Professor, Anthony Christian Daniel; Lt. Joseph Cable, Christopher Johnstone; Capt. George Brackett, John Bolger; Cmdr. William Harbison, Robert Ierardi; Lt. Buzz Adams, Dakota Cox; Yeoman Herber Quale, Andrew Mauney; Radio Operator Bob McCaffrey, Kirk Simpson; Morton Wise, Dakota Cox; Johnny Noone, James Erickson; Tom O'Brien, Jay Frisby; James Hayes, Gregory Williams; Kenneth Johnson, Ariel Padilla; Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Hassinger, Ben Mayne; Lt. Eustis Carmichael, Matt Patrick; Lt. Genevieve Marshall, Alejandra Lopez; Ensign Dinah Murphy, Laura Pavles; Ensign Connie Walewska, Samantha Berman; Ensign Sue Yaeger, Kristen Kelleher; Ensign Cora MacRae, Jessica Naimy
Now through July 15; Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main Street, Ogunquit, Maine; tickets priced from $39-$74; available by calling the Box Office at 207-646-5511 or online at www.orgunquitplayhouse.org
Ogunquit Playhouse on scenic Route 1 in Southern Maine has done with the 2008 Lincoln Center Theater revival of South Pacific what the second national tour that limped through Boston last season did not: captured the epic sweep and desperate romance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rodgers and Hammerstein classic and made the swelling tide of tortuously conflicted emotions pulsate and soar. This gorgeous and powerful production ends July 15, so do not hesitate to drive the 70 miles up the coast from Boston to experience this truly grand musical masterpiece.
Set against the backdrop of World War II at a time when the Japanese were pummeling American troops from their strongholds on numerous islands, South Pacific resonates with the immediacy of life or death situations. Sailors ache to escape their duties for a while on the exotic island of Bali Ha'i while couples fall in love instantly, clinging to what's warm and beautiful in an ugly and chaotic world. Troops busy themselves energetically with any number of distractions, from establishing ingenious "businesses" to putting on raucous shows to decorating little corners of their universe in ways that remind them of home. All of this urgency and desperation courses through Ogunquit's South Pacific. The constant threat of danger lurks in the background and electrifies every performance. Even the boredom of being stationed on an island that serves as a hospital and supply depot is infused with the tension of guarded expectation.
A sparkling Jennie Sophia plays Ensign Nellie Forbush, the quintessential "cockeyed optimist" from Little Rock, Arkansas who falls head over heels in love with the dashing expatriate French plantation owner Emile de Becque (the stunningly good opera star Branch Fields). She brings a delightful sense of unassuming comedy to "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and nearly bursts with guileless enthusiasm in "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy." However, when Nellie meets Emile's two children from a previous marriage to a Polynesian woman, she runs from him, tormented by her racist fears.
Sophia's transformation from a starry-eyed innocent to a frightened and confused product of her bigoted small-town upbringing is devastating to watch. In an instant her eyes lose their glow and take on a terror that vividly reveals her inner turmoil. Fields' pained response is equally harrowing. When he sings of his profound loss in "This Nearly Was Mine," his agony reverberates throughout the theater. His rich and potent bass penetrates so deeply that the audience is left breathless with empathy.
Earlier Fields enchants both Nellie and everyone at The Playhouse with his glorious rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening." When he first sings it, Fields makes the song a tender, passionate and even sensual declaration of love and courtship. With his reprise he infuses it with something even deeper – an unwavering determination and strength that reveals de Becque's reawakened simmering need for something untainted and beautiful in his life. On his final lyric, "never let her go," his conviction rises to a crescendo with each insistent note. The emotional impact is, quite simply, shattering.
The supporting cast is also uniformly strong. Christopher Johnstone as Marine Lt. Joseph Cable brings a magnificent voice – and a not often seen likability – to the preppy from Princeton whose love for the beautiful Tonkinese girl Liat (the delicate and lovely Hsin-Yu Liao) tears at his own deep-seeded prejudices. When he sings "Younger than Springtime" to Liat, his cool reserve melts into a pool of pure adoration. But when his racist fears win out over his love, he sings "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" with a biting irony that criticizes his family's narrow perspective as well as his own.
As Liat's profiteering mother Bloody Mary, a pragmatic but also hopeful woman who would even prostitute her own daughter to secure a better life for themselves, Christine Toy Johnson is a charismatic, conniving survivor. She cavorts mischievously with the sailors who pay far too much for her grass skirts and shrunKen Heads, but she also reveals the dreamer in her scenes with Lt. Cable. Her song of seduction, "Bali Ha'i," is a nice blend of romance and exotic allure, while "Happy Talk" is a wonderfully understated attempt to convince the lieutenant to stay and get to know Liat more deeply. She represents the tragic toll that war takes on local inhabitants when super powers invade and destroy their neutral paradise.
The American counterpart to the scheming Bloody Mary is the Navy's entrepreneurial wheeler dealer Luther Billis (Ben Crawford). Always looking to make a buck, but also the island's unintentional morale officer, Billis is a lothario when it comes to women but clearly has a soft spot for Nellie's unassuming charms. Crawford makes his Billis gruff on the outside but lets his tenderness for Nellie peek through whenever she is near. He also infuses the male ensemble with tremendous energy, helping to make "Nothing like a Dame" and "Honey Bun" legitimate showstoppers.
Joe Coots and Anthony Christian Daniel are lots of fun as Billis's Mutt and Jeff sidekicks Stewpot and the Professor. They are hilarious in their little drag reprise of "Bali Ha'i." John Bolger and Robert Ierardi bring impressive military gravitas to their roles as Captain Brackett and Commander Harbison. They (and director Shaun Kerrison) mercifully avoid turning serious naval officers into either overblown stereotypes or comic buffoons. Their balance between stern and human is just right.
Finally, there is the music – and music director Ken Clifton and his 10-piece orchestra are divine. Sounding like twice as many instruments (onstage behind a scrim), the orchestra sets the tone immediately during the overture. Notes swell and ebb like waves in the Pacific, enticing and intoxicating the listener. With each and every song, the orchestra adds a thrilling emotional dimension. Rodgers and Hammerstein would be very pleased.
Even if you've seen South Pacific before, this Ogunquit production is worth seeing again. The cast is sensational, and the impact is long lasting. You may never view this classic piece of American musical theater quite the same again. It's that good.
Photos courtesy of Ogunquit Playhouse: The company of South Pacific; Jennie Sophia as Nellie Forbush; Branch Fields as Emile de Becque with Jennie Sophia; Christine Toy Johnson as Bloody Mary with the ensemble; Christopher Johnstone as Lt. Joseph Cable and Hsin-Yu Liao as Liat