A Supremely Satisfying "South Pacific"

By Geary Danihy

It opened on Broadway in 1949. with the horrors and triumphs of World War II still fresh in playgoers’ minds. A smash hit, it was not without controversy, with the composer, Richard Rodgers, and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, being pressured to remove one song: “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” They refused, and South Pacific, based on James Mitchener’s Tales of the South Pacific, went on to join “Oklahoma” as classics of the American stage, glistening examples of what has been called the “Golden Era” of American musicals.

Since the musical’s opening it has been seen by millions of American either in its Broadway iterations (most recently in 2008, starring Kelli O’Hara), a somewhat color-drenched 1958 film directed by Joshua Logan, numerous road-show productions, in regional and local efforts, and many high school productions. Thus, it is familiar territory, even for those who are only occasional theatergoers, and this means that any new production faces high expectations and a demand that it be faithful, as much as possible, to what people remember and cherish. It’s my pleasure to report the production that recently opened at Ivoryton Playhouse meets and exceeds expectations, offering two-plus hours of sheer enchantment.

As deftly directed by David Edwards, who also choreographed the show, this production satisfies on just about every level, with a cast that, with minor exceptions, makes you forget any who have come before them. The major draw, going in, was the Playhouse’s good fortune to cast David Pittsinger as the French planter, Emile de Becque, and his wife, Patricia Shuman, as Bloody Mary. For Ivoryton, these are big names – Pittsinger is a renowned performer who has been seen in major opera houses, concert halls and on Broadway, and Schuman has similar credits, having sung leading roles in opera, at festivals and on concert stages.

The stage they are currently treading may be small in comparison to where they have performed before, but their performances are larger than life. Pittsinger, with his resonating bass-baritone voice and commanding stage presence, is de Becque personified, and when he sings “Some Enchanted Evening” or “This Nearly Was Mine,” you simply hold your breath so as not to disturb the wonderful sound that envelops you.

Equally satisfying is Schuman’s performance as the foul-mouthed, entrepreneurial Bloody Mary. If you didn’t read the program you would never know that she is famous for portraying Mozart heroines, for her Bloody Mary is as crass (“Stingy bastards!”) and down-to-earth as you could wish for, yet her operatic training lends a luminous quality to “Bali Hai” and a lilting loveliness to “Happy Talk.”

One would think that with Pittsinger and Schuman on the stage they couldn’t help but dominate both the eye and the ear, but such is not the case, for as satisfying as their performances are, they are overshadowed by Adrianne Hick’s lead performance as Nellie Forbush. She is, quite simply, a delight, for she totally captures the role of the “hick” nurse from Little Rock who is initially overwhelmed by de Becque’s attention but then succumbs to inbred racist tendencies to reject him, only to realize that her heart must win out over her upbringing.

Some actresses can sing the role, while other actresses can act the role, but Hick does both with style, aplomb and an infectious glee that makes you yearn for and anticipate her next appearance on stage. One senses that with each of her numbers -- “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy” and “Honey Bun” -- the audience had to restrain itself from calling for encores. She’s just that good.

Artistic director Jacqueline Hubbard has assembled a large cast for this production, but Edwards seems not to have been daunted by the numbers versus space ratio. His use of the stage (and the aisles) is both creative and effective, no more so than in the penultimate number, a reprise of “Honey Bun” as marines, sailors and nurses ship out to a combat zone. Somewhat reminiscent of the “shipping out” scene in Milos Forman’s film version of “Hair,” Edwards has the cast members march, singing the humorous “Honey Bun” number but moving to the persistent beat of a drum, onto the stage to form a V, then descend the center stairs into the darkened house until the stage, for a moment, is empty. It’s staging that makes a point without having to say a word.

Anyone who has been to Ivoryton knows that the stage is somewhat limited, but thanks to lighting designer Marcus Abbott and scenic designer Daniel Nischan, Ivoryton’s stage becomes as large as the Pacific Ocean itself – it shimmers, it broods, it glistens – and, given Tate Burmeister’s sound design, it often rumbles with the sound of surf and rattles with the roar of planes flying overhead. These creative efforts add to the luminous and engaging quality of the show and help make the evening as satisfying as it is.

Upon hearing that Ivoryton had chosen to stage South Pacific, one might have thought that the venerable venue had perhaps bitten off more than it could chew. One would have been wrong. This production is a gem with multiple star-turns, a stellar supporting cast that includes R. Bruce Connelly as the pugnacious Capt. Brackett and William Selby as the irrepressible Luther Billis, and a “vision” of what South Pacific should be that everyone involved has obviously bought into. And then there’s Adrianne Hick’s performance, one that, in itself, makes it worth the drive out to the tiny, picturesque town of Ivoryton.

South Pacific runs through July 26. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

 

* Contact Us * Designed by Rokoco Designs * © 2008 CCC *
 
CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE