Theater review: South Pacific at Flat Rock Playhouse
Bruce Steele: Flat Rock Playhouse had a packed house for opening night of its new production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific. Since this was your first encounter with the musical in any form, I'm anxious to know what you thought of this classic show.
Edwin Arnaudin: I strongly disliked it and was fairly bored throughout — but that’s due to the material, not the valiant effort of the cast and crew. We can get into specific standout performances, but I was especially taken with Dennis C. Maulden’s convincing scenic design and Patrick W. Lord’s innovative and informative projection work. However, it’s all in the service of a story that hasn’t aged well and, as with our recent experience with Hello, Dolly! at The Peace Center, has me wondering why it became a beloved creation in 1949 and questioning its cultural longevity.
Bruce: The simple answer is the amazing score, which I'm certain is what inspired the enthusiastic standing ovation opening night at Flat Rock. Baby Boomers, and Broadway aficionados of any age, grew up on these songs: "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "Younger Than Springtime," "This Nearly Was Mine," among others. Led Zeppelin borrowed a riff from "Bali Ha'i" for their "Immigrant Song," and even the non-PC "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" still packs quite a joyful kick, especially as performed by Flat Rock's talented crew of Seabees.
Edwin: The songs are fine to above average, at least in the first act. (Overall, I prefer them to Dolly’s, though there’s no showstopper to be found here.) “Dame” certainly inspired the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! standout dance number “No Dames,” though numerous aspects of South Pacific also found their way into Miss Saigon, an even more strangely cherished musical. Along with the U.S. military abroad-during-wartime premise, such overlaps include a lack of characters to care about, creepy bedroom scenes, and offensive Asian stereotypes. Did any of those aspects bother you?
Bruce: The show was ahead of its time in its handling of racial prejudice, and was even condemned as "communist" by some Southern politicians in the early 1950s, but it is far behind our times in its portrayals of Asians and women — even accounting for its 1942 time frame. I thought Kevin Hack was quite good as Lt. Cable, but his instantaneous liaison with a seemingly teenage Liat (played by two alternating actresses) did strike me as creepy this time around. She's basically prostituted by her mother, Bloody Mary (Yvonne Strumecki), which for me, at least, drained the romance out of Cable's melodic "Younger Than Springtime." I'm not sure what director Lisa K. Bryant could have done to give Liat more of a sense of agency, but post #MeToo, I couldn't help be a bit disturbed by the whole situation (though hardly to the level of Miss Saigon). On the other hand, Bloody Mary's "Happy Talk" was smartly staged to seem intentionally ironic and desperate, elements I'd missed with that upbeat tune before. Were there musical numbers that stood out for you?
Edwin: “Happy Talk" may have been smartly staged, but Strumecki’s mic kept going in and out on opening night, making it difficult for me to get much out of this new-to-me song. The one-two-three punch of “Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” formed the most magical stretch for me and gave me temporary hope for greater things ahead — though those wishes wound up being unfulfilled thanks to awkward first-act closing numbers and a rushed-feeling Act Two. Still, I was entertained nearly every time Andrew Foote’s mouthy schemer Luther Billis was onstage and also quite enjoyed the tag team of Preston Dyar and Willie Repoley as the story’s commanding officers. If only they were working through anything resembling a personal conflict...
Bruce: As it happens, Repoley's Commander Harbison was a major character in the source material, James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, but gradually got reduced to a sidekick in the creation of the musical. As we discussed after the show, Repoley has this kind of mid-20th-century repressed gentleman down to a tee — including mustache — and we'd love to see him in the 21st century at our next encounter. I agree with you on Foote, who played Billis as a full character rather than simply a clown and still nailed the humor. I also thought Sarah Stevens, in the lead role as Nellie Forbush, was charming and a winning singer who managed well the emotional switchbacks the script requires of her.
Edwin: Stevens is terrific, but she and Andrew O’Shanick as her French love interest Emile De Becque have such a bland introduction that I had difficulty investing in their romance. Following the visually busy overture, in which it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to focus on the projected war imagery or the human action behind the scrim, South Pacific starts with a string of songs on Emile’s veranda that had me wondering if the whole story would take place there. The clunky writing continues with abrupt revelations about Emile’s past and later with another character’s death. Are we truly supposed to take an emotional interest in anything here?
Bruce: This was the biggest stage hit of 1949 and the biggest movie hit of 1958, so I think earlier audiences — most of whom well remembered World War II — had no trouble investing in what were to them familiar characters and believable situations. But I understand your problem in 2019. The main romance depends in part on the magnetism of "the Frenchman," Emile, usually played by larger-than-life opera singers. O'Shanick has a great voice that I was relieved to hear was not operatic, but he seemed too young for the role, and he leans more toward kind and mellow than to coiled and mysterious. My emotional investment with this production was more in Nellie's growth beyond her Arkansas-grown prejudice ("You've Got to Be Carefully Taught") because of Emile's mixed-race children. I think Bryant and Stevens dramatized that journey well and without melodrama.
Edwin: It all left me pretty cold. As with other creative works from bygone eras, I do what I can to view them as products of their time — but even that approach doesn’t always result in liking it. I’ll stick with Rodgers and Hammerstein's first musical (Oklahoma!) and last one (The Sound of Music) and leave South Pacific to its established and potentially new fans. Do you think the first-grader seated in front of us became one of them?
Bruce: I don't think the first-grader watched more than a couple of minutes of the show, but while her mom and grandmother weren't the best disciplinarians, I'll applaud the effort to get young people to the theater. Maybe she'll remember it as a transformative experience. Memory clearly plays a big role in the appreciation of South Pacific. Most of the audience knew and loved the show and were happy to see a top-quality production of it. I already adored the song score — I've been happily reliving the show by listening to different recorded versions in the past couple of days — so I was transported by my favorite musical numbers, such as "Dame" and "Bali Ha'i" (which Strumecki delivered at full power) and "This Nearly Was Mine." It’s not a dance-heavy show, but choreographer Matthew Glover and his team squeezed a lot of movement into some tight spaces. Bryant's staging was classy and slick with those beautiful sets you already praised, gorgeous lighting by CJ Barnwell and spot-on costumes by Ashli Arnold Crump. The unfamiliar may resist the lure of this South Pacific, but audiences who can put themselves in a 1940s frame of mind will be transported.
South Pacific runs through July 5 at Flat Rock Playhouse. For details and tickets, visit flatrockplayhouse.org.
(Photos: Scott Treadway/Treadshots, courtesy of Flat Rock Playhouse)