BWW Reviews: Stellar Ensemble Shines in Ogunquit's SOUTH PACIFIC
There is nothin' like a good old-fashioned musical that relies on its book and score instead of million dollar special effects and glee-sounding vocals. Ogunquit Playhouse raises the curtain on its second show of the season with South Pacific, a summer "must-see" now playing through July 15.
For those few that don't know, South Pacific is the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award winning musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein with such memorable songs as Some Enchanted Evening, Bali Ha'i", Younger Than Springtime and A Cockeyed Optimist. Surrounded by an eclectic group of men, women and islanders, South Pacific tells the romantic struggles of two couples as they confront the realities of war and a world of prejudice that plays tug-of-war with their hearts and social consciousness in the South Pacific during World War II.
Opera star Branch Fields (Emile deBecque) fills The Playhouse with his flawless bass vocals, making every song he sings a show-stopper. Women and men alike swoon as Fields sings the signature song, Some Enchanted Evening. Field's strong operatic background, however, did not carry over as well into his acting which is, at times, stiff and unnatural.
Regardless of their actual ages, I wish there had been more of an age difference in appearance between the too youthful looking Fields and the stunning Sophia.
Christine Toy Johnson (Bloody Mary) gives a crowd-pleasing performance, highlighted with her energetic humor and commanding presence. I love Johnson's make-up choices and physicality. Hsin-Yu Liao (Liat) has a heartfelt fragility in a challenging role that demands you silently express your emotions.
Christopher Johnstone (Lt. Cable) soars in song and delivers a strong acting arc for his character's conflicts. Ben Crawford (Luther Billis) gives a good performance but misses the comedic mark of the wheeler-dealer wanna-be. Joe Coots (Stewpot) and Anthony Christian Daniel (Professor) are hilariously solid in their all-too brief antics and provide some of the best comedic moments in the show.
John Bolger (Captain Brackett) and Robert Ierardi (Cmdr. Harbison) are strong actors who, unfortunately, have been directed to shout throughout most of their scenes. Quiet control gives just as much commanding strength as in-your-face yelling, and would have offered more interesting acting choices.
With such important parts to play, it's unfortunately obvious that professional child actors weren't used for the roles of Emile de Becque's children, Ngana (Jasmine Nicole Reyers) and Jerome (Steven Sebastian Reyers Jr).
There is no question the dynamic ensemble gives a triple threat foundation to the show, providing powerful vocals, well executed choreography and committed character choices. Kristin Kelleher (Ensign Yaeger), Laura Pavles (Ensign Murphy) and Kirk Simpson (McCaffrey) are standouts. I love the unique look and personality of each ensemble member, making for interesting pictures and not just cookie-cutter chorus clumps.
Shaun Kerrison (Director) certainly has an impressive resume but, for me, there are missing moments and debatable choices made, focusing too much on the dramatic elements and not giving enough to the humorous layer and minor character relationships that are so beautifully interwoven within the script and score.
I found the need to show two naked male backsides unnecessary and out of place for this show. I think it's sad that during intermission, those bare behinds were talked about more than how wonderful everything else was.
Ken Clifton (Musical Director) continues to get the most out of his performers with excellent diction, coloring and interpretation. Clifton stays true to the South Pacific musicality with subtle creative touches of his own. A pitchy overture thankfully turned into a brilliantly played score.
Choreographer Victor Wisehart reproduced Christopher Gattelli's musical staging. Thankfully the ensemble infused life and personality into Gattelli's lackluster movement. I would have liked to see what Wisehart would have created on his own.
Unfortunately, there were several technical issues opening night. Original sets by Michael Yeargan vary from creative to uninspired. A projected Bali Ha'i is disappointing. Lighting by the usually brilliant Richard Latta is uneven, at times not even illuminating the performers. Sound by Jeremy Oleksa appears unsure as actors' body mics pop on and off at various times and distorted sound effect levels distract rather than enhance. Properties Supervisor, Allison Gillaspie, does a great job with period pieces.
I was surprised by the technical issues given the complexity and quick change-over time of past season's shows and what appeared to be flawless opening nights compared to this opening, which should have been easier in comparison.
Case in point: a climatic dramatic moment in Act Two with Sophia beautifully begging Emile to "live", became the shows biggest laugh when a stuck set curtain was continuously (and loudly) pulled until it released itself during Sophia's monologue and reprise. A standing ovation to Sophia for staying professional and focused during an inexcusable call by either the stage manager or someone backstage.
Costumes by Catherine Zuber were time appropriate and fun. Hair and make-up by Leah Munsey-Konops complimented Zuber's work perfectly.
A note to the front of house staff: Please get people in and seated before 8 p.m.. The opening night curtain speech did not begin until 8:10 and the curtain did not actually go up until 8:20 which proved for a long evening, with act two not starting until 10:15 and the curtain coming down at 11:15.
Although it was not the best opening night I've seen at Ogunquit Playhouse, I know South Pacific will quickly become an artistic (and sold-out) success once the kinks are worked out. With amazing vocals, some very talented principal actors and an excellent ensemble, Ogunquit provides a most enchanted evening of musical theater.
South Pacific continues through July 15 at the Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main St, Route 1, Ogunquit, ME. For tickets and more information call (207) 646-5511 or go to www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.
Pictured: Branch Fields and Jennie Sophia star in South Pacific at Ogunquit Playhouse.