A photograph in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 1942, showed a tall couple, smiling, holding their newborn baby. The father, handsome and slender, wore a second lieutenant’s uniform, and the caption read “World’s Best Reason for a Furlough.” The baby was me. I grew up during World War II in an Air Force family, so it wasn’t surprising that I’ve always felt connected to that time—and that one of the first LPs in my teenage collection was “South Pacific.”
Despite my partiality toward this show, I insist that the current production of “South Pacific” at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse is pretty darn fabulous and lasts through Aug. 28.
Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan’s story, set on a U.S. naval outpost in the Pacific islands, focused on wartime while making a central statement against racial prejudice: two romances are impeded by white fear of miscegenation.
But somber themes are mixed with joyous ones as you’re buoyed by the marvelous music of Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lyrics. After the rich overture (fine delivery by Corinne Aquilina’s orchestra) the French plantation owner’s mixed-race children chirp “Dites-Moi,” and then there’s a cheerful “Cockeyed Optimist” and plenty more. Director Scott Weinstein coordinates all his assembled behind the scenes talents beautifully and directs his 26-person cast thoughtfully, scenes shifting smoothly and briskly, the stage alive with action. The naval personnel, both men and women, are persuasive and entertaining, and William Carlos Angulo’s easygoing choreography makes their dances and marches quite natural.
Amidst the first-rate ensemble work in this musical, the leads simply shine. As Ensign Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse whose unexpected romance with French expat Emile de Becque is at the story’s heart, Sarah Ellis is absolutely fantastic: dynamic, comical, sensitive, bursting with energy. She finds her match in the older, world-savvy de Becque, played with grace and presence by a handsome, silver-haired Christopher Carl.
Both have impressive vocals: Ellis’ vibrant, delightful voice commands the stage; Carl’s sounds full-bodied and mellifluous, buttery yet powerful. Their solos and duets, as well as their evolving relationship, anchor the musical. Watching their scenes, one notes again how well Rodgers and Hammerstein structured this story, with songs and dance emerging with the ease of natural speech and movement.
The two most celebrated comic figures, both of them hucksters and hustlers—seaman Luther Billis and Tonkinese islander Bloody Mary—are splendidly played. Reed Campbell and Melody Butiu make these familiar roles completely their own. As the rule-breaking, pleasure-seeking Billis, a pot-bellied Campbell irresistibly weasels into everyone’s affection, from officers on down. When his and Nellie’s cross-dressing number caps the troops’ Thanksgiving show, every bit of the hokeyness is heartwarming.
Short but forceful, Butiu is complicated and irreverent, her Bloody Mary a fireball of energy, deviousness, wit, good heart and a great voice. It’s still hard to watch her pimping her daughter, Liat (a lovely Rachel Wong), but the love that blossoms instantly between the shy girl and marine Lieutenant Cable (an attractive redhead, Michael Deni) mitigates the gesture.
They play almost like children, innocent, until Cable realizes he can’t imagine going home with an Asian bride. (Here Deni’s strained vocals, this production’s sole drawback, need an improved tone) The second act sends him on his final fatal mission, de Becque alongside him.
In the final scene, the battered Frenchman returns—to his children, his devastated home, and a far more understanding Nellie. Together they’ve managed to defy this musical’s sad reminder that “most people live on a lonely island.”
“South Pacific,” music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. Directed by Scott Weinstein. At the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Auburn, through Aug. 28. Tickets at (315) 255-1785 or email@example.com.