BWW Review: Talented Cast Sails into SOUTH PACIFIC at Jewel Box Theatre

BWW Review: Talented Cast Sails into SOUTH PACIFIC at Jewel Box Theatre

Rodgers and Hammerstein shows are known for being of a certain type. They are rarely what might be called small or minimalist and it would be tricky for any theater to do minimalist versions of most of them. These are shows that often have the word "big" attached to them and for a smaller sized theater with somewhat limited resources to attempt one of these big shows is an ambitious effort. Jewel Box Theatre is currently trying to do just that with a fully staged production SOUTH PACIFIC, and the attempt ends up with highly mixed results.

When it appeared in the late 1940s, SOUTH PACIFIC was instantly applauded and heralded by critics and audiences alike. It won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score and Libretto. It took home all four acting awards, the only musical to ever do so, and also won the Pulitzer Prize. Though it has been revived on stage and film a number of times, the important questions may be whether or not it has stood the test of time and how today's audiences might respond differently to the themes and characters at its center.

As far as plot, the musical takes place on a Polynesian island during World War II. The main storyline concerns a U.S. Navy nurse stationed there, Nelly Forbush, who has fallen in love with a French plantation owner named Emile De Becque. Their romance is complicated first by the fact that he is much older than her and later by her discovery that he has two half-Polynesian children by his deceased first wife. Also on the scene is Lt. Joseph Cable, who has arrived to take part in a dangerous mission behind enemy lines and asks Emile for help, since Emile knows the islands so well. Cable falls in love with one of the island natives, Liat, the daughter of Bloody Mary, a woman who spends her time flirting with and selling locally made goods to the soldiers.

There are of course lots of other characters and a number of subplots in this show's book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, based on the novel Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener. At the heart of the story are issues of racism, as characters struggle with their own racist feelings and desire or need to overcome them. Its depictions of race and racism have been highly praised by some critics but also derided by others who claim the show itself is racist in its stereotyping of certain characters. In Jewel Box's production, these themes get pretty glossed over and even lost completely. There's never really any depth or development to the racial conflicts faced by the characters, never any real exploration of it, other than what's already there in a line of dialogue or lyric in a song.

While the story being told is important and impactful, it's the songs that most audience members will attend the show to see and hear. The music by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II features some all-time classics, such as "Some Enchanted Evening" and "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair," arguably one of the catchiest tunes in all of musical theater. There are also more than a few big dance numbers, creating an interesting blend of serious, thoughtful drama and big Broadway spectacle.

At Jewel Box, those big dance numbers are among the highlights of an overall lackluster production. Kylan L. Durant creates some wonderful choreography, keeping things pretty familiar and approachable, never throwing in anything that seems out of place in the context of this show. Instead, it all fits perfectly and is executed with skill by his talented group of dancers. The big number that opens Act II is especially great and there are many fun moments of dance sprinkled throughout.

As mentioned, the racist themes and racist actions of the characters are pretty downplayed here, and that may or may not have been a conscious decision by director Angela Prock. Her version of this show seems much more interested in just having fun and getting to the next song or dance, rather than dealing with the weightier issues. When there are more serious, intimate and emotional moments, they are often staged in such a way that most of the audience can't see the actors' faces, which robs something from both the actors and the audience. Actors are also very hard to hear at times, especially when they are singing, due to the much-too-loud recorded music that could really be turned down a few notches. When they are singing, and can be heard, it's clear that musical director Laura Himes has done fine work guiding their impressive vocal talents.

While the seas of this production may be rocky, the cast at Jewel Box is uniformly excellent, led by the radiant Katie Sperry as Nelly Forbush. While she may be young, Sperry brings a maturity to the role that is beyond her years, along with a heavy dose of charisma and stage presence. She has a gorgeous singing voice and nails some of her vocal numbers, such as "I'm Gonna Wash that Man..." and "A Wonderful Guy."

The guy she sings about, Emile, is played brilliantly here by Scott Hynes. With a deep, strong voice, Hynes is a pleasure to listen to and has some great musical moments, including the well-known "Some Enchanted Evening." Hynes also has great chemistry with Sperry and their scenes together often crackle with energy.

Jeremy Small brings leading-man looks and charisma to the other leading male role, Lt. Joseph Cable. Small has that classic period look for this kind of show and you could imagine him being perfect in any show by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter. Like Hynes, he also has some great acting chops and brings true, believable emotion and emotional turmoil to the role, his "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" is a major highlight.

In a much less dramatic role that he handles perfectly is Robert Cooper as Luther Bliss, one of the Americans stationed on the island, who mostly causes trouble for himself and the other men. Cooper is there mostly for comic relief, which he is great at, providing most of the production's funniest moments. He does also have a few dramatic, serious moments, which Cooper is also more than capable of pulling off.

Other funny moments are provided courtesy of Mariah Warren as Bloody Mary, the native woman who tries to sell goods to the navy men and then tries to get one of them to marry her daughter. Warren gives a fully committed performance from which she never wavers and is often very funny. This character has been controversial at times and audience members will have to decide for themselves how they feel about Warren's performance. Bloody Mary's daughter, Liat is played by Hannah Descartin, in a role that doesn't ask her to do much other than smile and barely ever speak.

As expected, the production features a large ensemble. What's less expected is just how much more to do and more stage time the male ensemble gets. That turns out to be one of the best parts of the production, as the actors here are great and they have individual and group moments which are among the show's highlights. Two other standouts are David Patterson as Capt. George Brackett and Jeff Perkins as Cmdr. William Harbison. They are small roles but these two actors make the most of them, especially Patterson, who steals many a scene.

As far as the technical elements, Jewel Box keeps things minimal, which ends up working really well. The set design by Richard Howells provides just enough to set a scene without overwhelming the actors in the small space (and extra kudos to everyone involved for the crisp and quick scene changes). Jeffrey Meek's costumes have everyone decked out perfectly and the lighting design by Scott Hynes adds some very nice touches, creating the right scene or mood when needed.

While the technical aspects of the production work well together and the cast is undeniably talented, it's hard to avoid the fact that this show comes across as dusty and dated. As a whole, the production doesn't give the material enough life. Some excellent choreography and a bit of fantastic singing aren't enough to save what feels like a sinking ship.

SOUTH PACIFIC runs through May 7th at Jewel Box Theatre, located at 3700 North Walker Street, in Oklahoma City. Performance times are Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Box Office phone hours are 1:00 ~ 6:00pm (Tuesday & Wednesday), 1:00 ~ 7:00pm (Thursday ~ Saturday), 12:00 ~ 1:30pm (Sunday). Box Office window hours are 7:30 (Thursday ~ Saturday) and 2:00 (Sunday). Visit their website at for more information.

Pictured: Robert Cooper and Katie Sperry

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From This Author Robert Barossi

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