Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Calendar Girls and Tot: The Untold, Yet Spectacular Story of (A Filipino) Hulk Hogan
In the Guthrie's sumptuous production, now playing on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, the score is played and sung beautifully. Yet, what is most moving is Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan's book. While musicals often feel like a string of plot devices that exist mainly to lead from one to the next musical number, South Pacific exemplifies perfectly the great thrust that occurred in musical theater with Rodgers and Hammerstein's work, starting with Oklahoma! and Carousel. Their musical numbers are not pauses in the book but places where the book continues, told in song and dance. The emotional richness of the songs in this show are part of the fabric of its narrative, and the book is all the stronger for that.
South Pacific is set on a pair of small South Pacific islands in the maelstrom of World War II. Hammerstein and Logan effectively combined two stories from their source material, James Michener's bestselling short story collection "Tales of the South Pacific." Each is a love story between people from two different worlds. The pairs of lovers are Navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner much older than Nellie; and Lieutenant Joe Cable, recently assigned to the base to conduct a dangerous reconnaissance mission, and Liat, a young Tonkinese island girl whose mother, called Bloody Mary, profits from the sale of all types of goods to the servicemen.
Joseph Haj, directing his first brand new production at the Guthrie since taking the reins as its Artistic Director a year ago, in no way minimizes the importance of the music in telling the story, but he puts the story first, with strongly played book scenes, drawing on his actors to remain firmly in character while singing. The strong current of racial intolerance that runs through both storylines has made many observers call the book dated. Yet, what could be viewed as outdated reactions by two central characters to the issue of race when seen through the lens of 2016, under Haj's insightful hand, seem like not-so-distant cousins to racist attitudes and gulfs in communication between people of different cultures that continue in our world today. The song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," long noted as a strong statement against racism and hatred, is powerfully performed by CJ Eldred as Joe Cable with the cynicism and despair Cable is feeling fully evident.
Eldred gives a persuasive performance as Cable, a Princeton graduate whose air of arrogance is undone by his tortured love for Liat. He also has the handsome looks and physique the role calls for. The two lead performances, though, Erin Mackey as Nellie Forbush and Edward Staudenmayer as Emile de Becque, truly earn the audience's standing ovation. Mackey conveys Nellie's intelligence and an enthusiasm for experiencing life beyond her Arkansas home. She sings beautifully, with clear tones and a voice bursting with feeling. She also brings exuberance to dance spots in "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and "Honey Bun." Staudenmayer has a stunning voice as well, making a monument of the wrenching "This Nearly Was Mine." He conveys Emile's gentle persistence in wooing Nellie, and the hopelessness he feels when he thinks he has lost her. The chemistry between them works very well, making the audience root for their shared happiness.
Christine Toy Johnson brings a less exotic flavor to the role of Bloody Mary than is typical, narrowing the sense of "otherness" between this Tonkinese businesswoman and the American servicemen, underscoring how much easier it was in 1942 for that sense of "otherness" to take hold. Johnson is funny, without making Bloody Mary a cartoon, and she sings the wondrous "Bali Ha'i" beautifully. As fast-dealing but kind-hearted Seabee Luther Billis, Jimmy Kieffer wins the audience over with great comic timing, strong voice and movement, and the ability to convey the warm heart at the core of Billis' scheming. Steve Hendrickson as Captain Bracket, and Michael Gruber as Commander Harbison both serve these non-singing roles quite well, demonstrating the mix of discipline and understanding needed to be leaders of men in a holding pattern, waiting for their chance to change the course of history.
There really are no weak links in the cast, and the ensemble is terrific when raising their voice in the terrific choral numbers, and breaking out in dance, with Daniel Pelzig's choreography drawing on the bursts of bottled-up energy that provides cover for the fears of these sailors, soldiers and nurses who are only a command away from shipping off to battle. Just as the actors remain in character when singing, the ensemble remains in character when dancing. The music is beautifully performed by a ten-piece orchestra (that often sounds like more) under the baton of music director and conductor Tim Weil.
John Lee Beatty designed the stunning set. The massive backdrop hung at the rear of the Wurtele's thrust stage is a filigree that, working with Justin Townsend's terrific lighting, resembles at times the design of carved sea shell, other times Polynesian textile motifs, then an array of tropical flowers, and in a climatic closing scene, transforms into military camouflage. Jennifer Caprio's costumes adhere to the limitations of military attire yet manage to convey individual sensibilities in each character. She dresses de Becque as a man of means and taste, but not opulence, while Nellie's dress for a party he gives in her honor contributes mightily to the romantic tone. Ms. Capiro is able to let loose creating the hilarious costumes for the base Thanksgiving pageant, including the bawdy "Honey Bun" number.
It gives one pause to think that South Pacific opened not quite four years after the end of World War II. It was a huge hit, becoming the second longest-running Broadway musical (second to Oklahoma!), and won both the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize. Thousands upon thousands of audience members no doubt had either served in or lost loved ones in the war, and the effect of seeing their still-fresh experience on stage must have been quite powerful. In counterpoint to that, its call to put aside differences and embrace one another as fellow men and women was a brazen challenge to the nation. South Pacific was highly topical even as it spun webs of romantic dreams. Today it is easy to dismiss it as a period piece, blessed with beautiful songs and a few choice characters, and miss the courage embodied in the show.
Joseph Haj has tapped into that courage, bringing light to both the flaws and the heroism of its characters, and making its cry for tolerance and embrace of differences have meaning for a 2016 audience. With that as his baseline, a terrific cast, wonderful design work, and that soaring score, Haj's first new work for the Guthrie is also his first solid hit for the Guthrie.
South Pacific continues at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage through August 28, 2016. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets are $19.50 - $84.00. College Students (with ID), $3.00 off per ticket. Children's (ages 12 - 17) discounts also available. Public Rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.
Music: Richard Rodgers; Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II; Book: Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, adopted from the novel Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener; Director: Joseph Haj; Music Director and Conductor: Tim Weil; Choreographer: Daniel Pelzig; Set Design: John Lee Beatty; Costume Design: Jennifer Caprio; Lighting Design: Justin Townsend; Sound Design: Scott W. Edwards; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Voice and Text Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Stage Managers: Chris A. Code; Assistant Stage Managers: Michelle Hossle and Tree O'Halloran; Assistant Director: Daisuke K. Kawachi; Dance Captain" Mathias Anderson; Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting Ltd.; Design Assistants: Alice Fredrickson and Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound)
Cast: Mathias Anderson (Yeoman Herbert Quale), Katie Bradley (Bloody Mary's Assistant), Cat Brindisi (Ensign Cora MacRae), Louisa Darr (Ngana *), David Darrow (O'Brien), CJ Eldred (Lt. Joseph Cable), Michael Gruber (Cmdr. William Harbison), Katie Hahn (Ensign Dinah Murphy), Steve Hendrickson (Capt. George Bracket), Daniel S. Hines (Stewpot), Sander L. Huynh-Weiss (Jerome *), Lamar Jefferson (Radio Operator Bob MCaffrey), Christine Toy Johnson (Bloody Mary), Jimmy Kieffer (Luther Billis), Gavihn Lee (Jerome *), Joel Liestman (Lt. Buzz Adams), Benjamin J. Lohrberg (ensemble), Erin Mackey (Ensign Nellie Forbush), Wesley Mouri (Henry/Professor), Manna Nichols (Liat), Dan Piering (ensemble), Carley Rosefelt (Ensign Janet MacGregor), Laura Rudolph (swing), Edward Staudenmayer (Emile de Becque), Jon Michael Stiff (swing), Allyson Tolbert (Lt. Genevieve Marshall), Natalie Tran (Ngana *).
* appearing in alternate performances