Enchanting: South Pacific at Ivoryton Playhouse
By Brooks Appelbaum
One might be forgiven for wondering how the tiny stage at the Ivoryton Playhouse could do justice to Rogers and Hammerstein’s expansive tale of marines, fabled islands, dangerous military missions, and troubled love in South Pacific.This musical, with a skillfully constructed book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, also requires not only singers who can convey deeply nuanced characters, but at least one singer -- playing lonely French widower Emile de Becque -- who must convey an intricate role and perform some of the most difficult, operatic ballads in musical theater of the period. However, from the moment we meet Ensign Nellie Forbush (the marvelous Adrienne Hick) and de Becque (a deeply moving David Pittsinger), it is clear that Ivoryton’s South Pacific, directed by David Edwards, is a brilliant success.
The script is based on James Michener’s collection of short stories set during World War II, Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize.The musical’s plot focuses on two mirroring love stories that run aground on the racism that “must be carefully taught,” as one of the lovers, Lt. Cable, tells us in a bitter song. Further tying these principle characters together is a military operation aimed at the Japanese that, directly or indirectly, involves all four of the lovers and their fates.
Edwards has a discerning eye for casting actors and helping them shape the complex characters that inhabit South Pacific. Adrienne Hick brings a lovely voice and gracefully sunny presence to Nellie, the self-described “cockeyed optimist.” Despite their differences -- in age, background, and education -- we see why the wealthy plantation-owner, Emile, has fallen for her after meeting only two short weeks before. However, Hick is equally believable, and moving, in portraying Nellie’s doubt and anxious uncertainty.
As Emile, David Pittsinger, an operatic bass-baritone, played the role at the Kennedy Center to rave reviews. Emile has two of the most emotional pieces in this, or, arguably, any score by Rogers and Hammerstein (“Some Enchanted Evening”; “This Nearly Was Mine”). His singing -- like his acting -- seems effortless, and his intelligence, tenderness, and poise give Emile’s deep feelings even more power. The chemistry between Hick and Pittsinger is instantly unmistakable, and this chemistry is perhaps South Pacific’s most important element.
Edwards makes his only slight misstep in casting the other pair of lovers, Lt. Joseph Cable, Princeton graduate and unwilling captive of upper-class bigotry, and Liat, the young Tonkinese girl he falls in love with. Peter Carrier’s acting is fine, but his voice is not up to the wide range of the difficult and famous “Younger Than Springtime.” Because Liat doesn’t sing and only speaks a few French words, we must understand her emotions and fragility through her appearance, movements (she does dance), and an ineffable sensuality combined with utter innocence. Annelise Cepero is lovely and graceful, but Edwards doesn’t manage to elicit Liat’s heartbreaking helplessness.
In every other case, Edwards and his actors create characters who are not just believable but who go beyond what we could wish for. E. Bruce Connelly makes an exacting Capt. George Brackett, whose nickname, “Iron Belly,” is once or twice belied by a barely discernable twinkle. As Bloody Mary, Patricia Schuman is by turns wily, frightening, and seductive (always for the sake of business), and she always modulates her glorious voice to serve her songs’ intentions.
Most electrifying is William Selby as Luther Billis, a sailor manic with island fever and hungry for adventure and for the young French women who reportedly inhabit the mysterious and magical island of Bali Ha’i. Billis is often played as a buffoon, but Selby -- tall, gangly, and gruff-voiced -- plays him as a con man with almost alarming energy. At the same time, Billis shows his soft heart in several scenes with Nellie, and we get a touching glimpse of the man he might be in different circumstances. This is a tour de force performance.
Every element of the production is perfectly calibrated to suit the small stage. Scenic Designer Daniel Nischan uses minimal set pieces that vividly bring each place on the island to life, and Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott creates lovely, atmospheric lighting. We are immersed in the mood of every scene. And the orchestra, led by Michael McAssey, is superb, as is the sound quality in general.
David Edwards and The Ivoryton Playhouse have produced a fine moving production of South Pacific, and the seats should be full every night of its run. The evening is enchanting -- and sadly, still relevant -- indeed.
South Pacific runs through July 26. Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.