Regional Reviews: Phoenix
This 1949 musical, with a book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan and based on James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Tales of the South Pacific," is centered on the relationship between Emile de Becque, a sophisticated middle-aged planter with a complicated past, and the younger Ensign Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, who describes herself as a "hick." Set on a South Sea island inhabited by plantation owners and the Tonkinese natives, but now taken over partly by the U.S. Navy, the story effectively captures the spirit of the military personnel who are stationed on this island far from home during World War II. The plot focuses on a crucial turning point in the war in the Pacific and the lingering issue of racism, not only in the United States, but also very much present in this tropical paradise.
Tiana Marks does an exceptional job as Nellie. She has the most range to play as this young and slightly naive woman, and Marks navigates her way with ease through Nellie's budding fascination with Emile, to her compassion for her fellow service men and women and the ingrained racism that she is forced to confront when it rears its ugly head. Her Arkansas accent never once falters and with expert facial expressions and gestures she hits all of the notes appropriately (both musically and dramatically), while completely avoiding any immature moments that could undermine her portrayal. It is a knock out performance on par with other much older actresses I've seen play this part.
As Emile, Steven Enriquez is also very good. He has a strong, solid stage presence that helps to portray this serious man. His voice is full and robust as well, and he delivers a tender and romantic "Some Enchanted Evening" while his "This Nearly Was Mine" is filled with a keen sense of loss. He and Marks form a realistic romantic pair, both effective in how they are enamored by the other, which makes us root for them to succeed. Enriquez's French accent is quite good.
The romance between Emile and Nellie isn't the only one present in the show, with the loud mouth, animated Bloody Mary (Issie Ocampo) conspiring to find a man for her daughter Liat (Phoenix Cyphert) from the many U.S. military men she comes in contact with. Mary thinks she has found him in the handsome Lt. Joseph Cable (Vinny Pugliese), but all doesn't go as planned. Pugliese delivers a straightforward approach with a hint of cockiness in smart, rich lieutenant. His two solos, a soaring and lush "Younger Than Springtime" and the forceful and biting "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," hit all the right marks. Ocampo has a beautiful singing voice but she doesn't attempt much of an accent for Mary, which is a bit of a distraction, especially since we know that Mary is a native of the South Pacific setting.
Devon Policci is fine as Luther Billis, the always planning and conspiring leader of the Seabees who is fascinated with the rituals of the natives and making a fast buck but also somewhat infatuated with Nellie. Policci has a clear stage presence and good line delivery and his love and admiration for Nellie is expertly shown, though he occasionally is a little too broad in his humor. Alex Demski delivers a solid performance of Captain Brackett, the perfectly military man who also has a bit of a sensitive side. Charlie Rabago is equally as good as Commander Harbison, Brackett's right hand man.
This is another exceptional directing effort by Kenny Grossman. He has clearly guided his large, young cast so they all create realistic, fleshed out, and nuanced characters. While a few may occasionally deliver a comic moment a bit too broad or be on the cusp of overacting a line, they never do so without being fully invested in their characters. The intimacy of the small Spotlight space also lets the emotional characters and the harsh realities of the racially charged story strongly resonate. Choreographer Lynzee 4Man's steps are well danced by the large cast, while Mark 4Man's music direction achieves some lovely sounds from the leads and ensemble. The prerecorded tracks used for this production are stellar.
Because of Spotlight's small theatre, Emile's plantation and the beach that is supposed to be full of military personnel can't really be portrayed, since there is no room for an elaborate set design. However, three large paintings by Bobby Sample on the walls that surround the stage help to evoke the tropical setting, and the seascape backdrop is lush and romantic with a stunning shimmering moonlight effect that appears in the second act. Audrey Wawro's costumes are bright, colorful, and period appropriate and Josh Hontz's lighting uses shadows and a range of hues from bright to dark to portray both the heat of the day and the romantic, shadowy mystery of this faraway land. Trey DeGroodt's hair and make-up designs are superb, with all of the women exhibiting the look of the 1940s. The only quibble is that Pugliese's long hair wouldn't have exactly been a Marine regulation cut.
Chock-full of many showstopping numbers, South Pacific is a sensational musical but also one that seriously explores two parallel stories that deal with race and interracial relationships. With a young but talented cast, excellent direction, and superb creative aspects, the Spotlight Youth Theatre production is a solid, entertaining and emotionally charged presentation of this groundbreaking musical.
Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of South Pacific runs through November 6th, 2016, with performances at 10620 N 43rd Avenue in Glendale. Tickets and information can be found at www.spotlightyouththeatre.org or by calling 602-843-8318.
Director: Kenny Grossman