BWW Review: Musically Solid SOUTH PACIFIC at Seattle Musical Theatre Feels Unpolished
Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" is almost 70 years old. First appearing on stage in 1949, Seattle Musical Theatre took on this oldie but goodie and brought to life glimmers of classic Broadway razzle-dazzle. The singing was energetic and velvety smooth, the costumes (by Margaret Toomey) were carbon copies of the original production (i.e. high waist bathing suits, tight white naval suits and enviable Betty Grable victory rolls), and a live pit orchestra to boot that brought the house down. Unfortunately, the mismatched energy levels of the actors, predictable choreography and a minimal set design made the production feel unfinished.
For those who are unfamiliar with the show, "South Pacific" takes place on a South Pacific island during World War II, where Sweet Nellie Forbush, a nurse in the U.S. navy, falls in love with middle-aged Frenchman Emile De Becque (though she has only known him briefly). Meanwhile, restless American Seabees lament their loss of available women, teased by middle-aged street vendor Bloody Mary as she tells them of the not-so-distant Bali Ha'i island, full of goods (valuable Tonkinese artifacts) and *ahem* services. Like Nellie, one Lieutenant Cable finds he, too, is spellbound by the Island in forbidden love with a local Tonkinese woman named Liat.
There is nothing like a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical soundtrack getting stuck in your head. The songs are just so catchy that I could not help but sing to myself 'There is nothing like a daaaaaame!" after watching this musical romp. Truly, the singing and instrumentals were everything you could possibly want from a classic production written and performed in the 1950s. Morgan Bader as Lieutenant Luther Billis had impressive range, and absolutely killed it during 'There Is Nothing Like A Dame.' Though the intention of Bader's baritone moments were for laughs, they were ultimately very impressive. Christiana Masson accomplished a classic old musical trait of the performers singing beautifully while smiling.
Directed by Phil Lacey, this production has potential to be great; the talent clearly there, it just needs more time to work out the kinks.
Take, for example, the choreography. I admire the attempt to capture old Hollywood choreography, clad with high-kicks, Charlstons, and light gymnastics. One song ended with two women doing simultaneous splits that made me squeal with delight at how retro it felt. But, unfortunately, the delight wore off quickly when the choreography became redundant.
At times, the energy levels of the performers did not feel cohesive, particularly Nellie and Emile's. Separately, they did a great job. Marissa Ryder as Nellie was a high-watt spitfire that I loved to hear sing and watch prance around. John Carroll's Emile was cultured, debonair and very romantic. Sadly, they seemed to have trouble connecting. Many of the moments these two shared felt disjointed and separate, which, unfortunately, made for some pretty forced chemistry.
I wonder too if the reason the acting at times came off awkwardly was due to the real lack of set design. In the first scene, we are introduced to Emile and Nellie on a set of stairs. It was difficult for me to tell where exactly the two of them where-if they were indoors or outdoors, if they were on Emile's property-which created confusion about the characters' relationship. Many times, Emile or Nellie would look wistfully into the distance with their back to their partner for extended periods of time, which really took me out of the moment because, without set pieces or pantomimed context, the actors were essentially standing and staring at nothing.
I loved watching Morgan Bader as Lieutenant Billis ham it up. He had outstanding comedic timing as the young, wise-guy lieutenant, and made for a fun counterpart to the more serious Lieutenant Cable.
Like Bader, Rachel Rene had me believe that she was Bloody Mary. Her singing and hilarious flirting with the sailors felt so effortless and authentic. Her eerie seductiveness in her singing of "Bali Ha'I" really stood out amidst a pretty tame score. For me, Rene was the standout performance of the evening.
The production was just unpolished, and needs more time to self-edit. I could see the microphones taped onto actors' foreheads with the cord popping out of the collars. The drawn-out untangling of a set piece onstage took up so much time that I thought it was an intentional gag (to their credit, they sweetly handled the mistake with a sense of humor). Nellie entered and exited the shower for "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" dry and in the same clothes. These are all small details, yes, but when they pile up, they muffle the perfectly captured spirit in the music and the costumes. This show has a lot of potential, it's just not quite ready yet.
There were lots of moments during this production where I felt nostalgic, but I feel that the production has not quite gotten to a place where the audience will feel transported. I give the Seattle Musical Theatre's "South Pacific" 2/5 stars.
"South Pacific" performs at Seattle Musical Theatre through May 1st, 2016. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.seattlemusicaltheatre.org.