BWW Review: St. Petersburg Opera Company's Impressive, Briskly-Paced SOUTH PACIFIC
I am in the camp that believes that SOUTH PACIFIC is Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest work. Even though it won the Pulitzer Prize and is the only musical to garner the Tony Award for all four acting categories, the show still sometimes seems overshadowed by other R & H classics: Oklahoma! is more important in musical theatre history; Carousel boasts a more beautiful score; The King and I has a lovelier story; and The Sound of Music is certainly more popular. But SOUTH PACIFIC stands tall as the duo's masterwork, their pinnacle, where they use their combined genius to tell a story about racism at a time where most musicals were fluff at best.
Based on James Michener's book, Tales of the South Pacific, SOUTH PACIFIC focuses on two major storylines set on an island "paradise" during World War 2: a French planter and a nurse whose love may be doomed due to racism, and a young man falls in love with a young Tonkinese girl even though he has been carefully taught to hate people of different races. The two stories merge, but the plot remains secondary to the most powerful songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon: The standard "Some Enchanted Evening," the haunting "Bali Ha'i," the roaring "There is Nothing Like a Dame," the fun "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," the sweet "Happy Talk," the powerful "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," and the heartbreaking "This Nearly Was Mine." Any or all of these songs remain in the pantheon of classic Broadway tunes. And yet they came from the same show, where Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were at the zenith of their songwriting abilities.
SOUTH PACIFIC is also one of the few musicals where it's best to have an opera singer in a key role. When the musical premiered on Broadway in 1949, Ezio Pinza starred as the French planter, Emile de Becque, after having just finished a 22-year stint at the Metropolitan Opera. In the not-very-good film version of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein show, opera singer Giorgio Tozzi dubbed Rossano Brazzi's songs for the same role. I have seen SOUTH PACIFIC several times, and if you do not have an opera singer in the role of de Becque, or at least someone with an operatic voice, then it just doesn't work. That's why I wasn't surprised when the St. Petersburg Opera chose SOUTH PACIFIC for their season. Of all the classic musical theatre productions, this one can utilize some of their best opera singers perfectly.
In this production, in the role of de Becque, Todd William Donovan hits just the right notes, literally. He's likable as an actor, with a decent accent and good connection with his love, Nellie, but it's his songs that are out of this world. The iconic "Some Enchanted Evening" never sounded better, and during it, the couple sitting next to me lovingly held hands. But that just seemed to be a prelude to his "This Nearly Was Mine" in Act 2. This was a bona fide make-you-cry powerhouse of a performance; the audience's ovation after the number lasted longer than many curtain calls I've seen.
As the perky "cockeyed optimist," Nellie Forbush, bright-eyed Molly Mustonen is a winner. Her ingratiating personality is so lively, lovely, that you see why de Becque falls in love with her. Her singing voice is gorgeous, and it's not bothersome that her Southern accent doesn't always translate into her songs. Nellie is a walking paradox; I love how the character can easily forgive a man for killing someone but has a hard time dealing with his past mixed marriage.
As the hunched Tonkinese Bloody Mary, Carla Lopez-Speziale quickly became an audience favorite. Her voice is in top form, and even though her "Bali Ha'i" didn't reach the goose bump highs that I've sometimes experienced, it's an incredible number, as is her dynamic rendition of "Happy Talk."
As the doomed Lt. Joseph Cable, John Kaneklides is sensational, one of the best interpretations of the part I have ever seen. Tall and good-looking in a way that is both Kennedy-esque and Romney-esque, Kaneklides makes us care for Cable and understand his plight. And whenever he sings, his glorious voice makes the audience melt. His "Younger Than Springtime" and especially the chillingly real "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" are simply brilliant.
One of the most underrated numbers in the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook remains "My Girl Back Home," a duet where Cable and Nellie sing of being far away from the world they know. I love the song because it's so simple--two characters from two separate plots coming together briefly to tell their tales to each other. And it's wonderfully interpreted here by Kaneklides and Mustonen.
In the key clownish role of Luther Billis, Tyler Putnam is a hoot. Still, I like to see Billis played with a bit more anarchy; Putnam seems a little too controlled in the role for my tastes. I like to see unpredictability with him, a what's-he-gonna-do-next crazy-man vibe, although Putnam's memorable "Honey Bun" comes close and is forever etched in my mind. And his tattooed stomach is amazingly rendered; what he does with it during "Honey Bun" quickly became one of the highlights of the show. Billis is a lovable character, crazy if not chaotic here, and Putnam does the wild-man jokester justice (he also lays claim to a marvelous singing voice, as evident in his rollicking rendition of "Bali Ha'i").