BWW Review: Take a Trip to SOUTH PACIFIC at the Belmont
One of the most popular musicals of all time, Rodgers and Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC is one of the most honored. Winning ten Tonys in its original Broadway run along with a Pulitzer Prize for drama, it copped seven more Tonys during its 2008 revival, and the staged concert in 2005 with Reba McEntire, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Alec Baldwin had a magnificently produced recording. There are few musicals, if any, whose entire scores aere better known. Based on novelist James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, the show is perhaps no less controversial today than it was at its opening night for its treatment of sex and race. Later in Rodgers and Hammerstein's works than OKLAHOMA, it treats the careers of military nurses seriously even when the women themselves attempt not to.
It's at The Belmont Theatre in York right now in a lavish production with full orchestra, and, directed by Rene Staub, it's a beautiful thing to behold. Emile De Becque's plantation house is as lavish as Seabee Luther Billis' laundry and bathhouse are shakily functional, and you can almost smell the hibiscus and gardenia in the air.
Such a rarefied setting deserves the proper cast to grace it, and as the lead belter, Hillary Miller is a winner as nurse Nellie Forbush, from washing that man right out of her hair to her Thanksgiving show performance of "Honey Bun" with the ravishing Wesley Hemmann as Luther Billis in coconut shell and hula skirt drag. Hemmann deserves a special nod; Billis is the comic relief of the show, and Hemmann makes the most of it with a flair. There's not much more fun on stage anywhere than in the second act Thanksgiving show sketch, and Miller and Hemmann and the ensemble make it look not just easy but almost unfairly fun.
This writer loves the secondary characters of this show the most, so a great Bloody Mary, and we don't mean the drink, is as essential as a wild and wooly Billis. Kudos to Tara Beitzel for knocking the part straight out of the ballpark, with a rendition of "Bali Ha'i" that can leave goosebumps on the audience's arms even as they smell the tiare coming across the water. Agreeing with the Seabees, Bloody Mary, in this show, is indeed the girl we love.
But Billis, excellent as Hemmann is, is not Forbush's love interest. That falls to wealthy older planter Emile De Becque, delivered to us by area theatre veteran Christopher Quigley. While the audience certainly is waiting for his performance of the show's hit number, "Some Enchanted Evening," which comes early in the show, not to be missed is his second act performance of "This Nearly Was Mine." It's rare to find a musical in which the lead male isn't a tenor, and this is one of the great baritone knockout numbers, an emotional and musical heavyweight full of serious power.
The tenor lead is Vinny Beck as Lt. Joseph Cable, intrepid, determined, and just about ready to die for his country. While he's great with his first act romantic number, "Younger Than Springtime," another of the show's well-known romantic pieces, it's his second act "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" that underscores the theme of the entire show. It's his disastrous relationship with Bloody Mary's daughter Liat (Kesiah Patil) and De Becque's desertion by Forbush when she realizes that his first wife wasn't white - something that bothers her infinitely more than the murder he committed in his youth - that are provokedby racial prejudice and that cause both men to take on a suicide mission for the Navy. Fortunately, both Cable and Forbush are able to confront their prejudices, though with more repercussions for one than the other.
The rest of the cast is uniformly delightful to watch in action, although the most fun may be watching Commander Harbison (Shane Rohrbaugh) and Captain Brackett (Joel Persing, returning to the Belmont stage at long last) hard at work deciding just which one really is "old ironbelly."
SOUTH PACIFIC is an education as well as an entertainment, especially in a day when knowledge of recent history is so weak, but it's an education that's easy to take in. And it's an entertainment that's going to have songs that will stay in your head for days, especially when you realize how many of those songs you really already know. If you've never seen it live, the Belmont's production is well worth catching. If you've seen it before, see it again anyway. There are reasons the show is loved, and you'll see almost all of them in this production.
At The Belmont through the 24th. Visit thebelmont.org for tickets and information.