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South Pacific
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Bodyguard and Mercury


Sean David Cooper and
Kate Marshall

Photo by Scott Samplin
From The Sound of Music to The King and I and Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II have created many classic musicals filled with well-known tunes and memorable characters. Rodgers and Hammerstein also wisely incorporated social issues into most of their shows, and in the groundbreaking 1949 musical South Pacific, which I consider to be their best work, they tackle such topics as prejudice and the politics of war in a direct and powerful way. Arizona Broadway Theatre's production of this beloved show is infused with passion, beauty, and a cast who excel in delivering the many showstopping moments with ease but also don't skirt or downplay the social issues at the show's core.

With a book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan and based on James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Tales of the South Pacific," the musical is centered on the relationship between Emile de Becque, a sophisticated French 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 Seas 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 American servicemen and servicewomen 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.

ABT's cast is simply sublime without a single weak link. Sean David Cooper and Kate Marshall elicit a palpable amount of smoldering heat in their portrayals of the main couple Emile and Nellie. From Cooper and Marshall's rich portrayals it is clearly apparent that, even though they've only known each other for two weeks, Emile and Nellie have already formed a deep connection. Both have beautiful singing voices, with Cooper's rich, clear voice delivering a romantic and lush "Some Enchanted Evening" and a passionate "This Nearly Was Mine." From Nellie's reserved but apparent fascination with Emile to her compassion and dedication to her fellow members of the Navy and the ingrained racism that she is forced to confront when it rears its ugly head, Marshall is very good at navigating through the changes the character makes throughout the show. She also provides a bright and a warm singing voice to her many songs. The natural approach these two bring to their roles, combined with Hammerstein and Logan's exquisite dialogue, create realistic, nuanced, and fleshed out characters.

There are also rich and layered supporting characters, including the boisterous and animated Bloody Mary (Eleonore S. Thomas) who is desperately trying to find a U.S. military man to give her daughter Liat (the quiet and demure Chun Ying Chang) a better life. Mary believes the handsome Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Jay McGill) is the perfect man for her daughter. But, like the romance between Emile and Nellie, Mary finds that her plans don't exactly go as she hoped. Thomas is excellent in providing charm along with an assured sense of cunningness to this larger than life and vibrant woman with a powerful singing voice that delivers. McGill is very good as the Lieutenant, who is both highly educated and from a wealthy family yet, like Nellie, finds he may also have racial beliefs that he can't get past. His soaring voice achieves beautiful notes on the dreamy "Younger than Springtime" and the piercing "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught."

As Luther Billis, the always conspiring leader of the Seabees, Brad Rupp brings plenty of comic ticks and bits to this man who is always trying to make a fast buck but also provides layers of fascination in both the way he is smitten by Nellie and with the rituals of the natives. As Captain Brackett, TV Reeves adds a perfect blend of humor and heart to the stoic military man.

Andy Meyers' direction not only helps the cast balance the comedic and dramatic elements of their characters, which creates memorable characters in the process, but he also isn't too heavy handed in his direction, letting the words, lyrics, and actions of the characters guide us through the ups and downs of the various relationships in the show as well as the racial prejudices of the piece. Meyers has staged his scenes with a perfect use of the scrims that allow the show to never stop moving, as he'll have one scene play out in front of a scrim while the sets are being rearranged behind it for the next one to continue seamlessly. Also, Meyers adds a beautiful moment to Emile's heartbreaking solo "This Nearly Was Mine" when he has McGill's Cable looking off-stage toward the place where he last saw Liat. That moment of longing and loss on McGill's face helps turn the solo into a shared moment between these two very different men.

While Michaela Lynn Stein's set designs are fairly simple, they do include drops made out of a crepe netting that tie in perfectly to the location and military setting of the piece along with some large pieces that help morph the stage into Emile's home. Aaron Curry's lighting adds to the shifts in location and time of day, though I did miss having any sense of the island of Bali Ha'i that is so often mentioned in the show. A projection or simple painted element on the back sky-blue wall would have been an effective touch to signify this mystical place. Lottie Dixon's exquisite costumes and Amanda Gran's wig and make-up designs provide an abundance of period perfect touches. James May's musical direction is superb. He not only elicits a beautiful full sound from the small orchestra, and there is a lot of musical underscore in this show, but also some rousing melodies from the large cast.

With a score that comprises one showstopping song after another, South Pacific isn't just a memorable musical but a show that effectively explores the issues of race and interracial relationships during World War II. Arizona Broadway Theatre's production of this classic musical is beautiful and moving. It's just unfortunate that a show that premiered almost 70 years ago includes a social issue of hatred and confusion that is still relevant today.

South Pacific runs through December 30th, 2017, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623 776-8400.

Book by Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, based on James A. Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific"
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Music by Richard Rodgers
Direction: Andy Meyers
Choreography: Lauren Morgan
Music Direction: James May
Set Design: Michaela Lynn Stein
Lighting Design: Aaron Curry
Costume Design: Lottie Dixon
Wig/Makeup Design: Amanda Gran
Sound Design: Thom Beaulieu
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Lieutenant: Buzz Adams: Mark Bacon
Lieutenant: Genevieve Marshall: Blair Beasley
Ensign Connie Walewska: Taylor Caprara
Liat: Chun Ying Chang
Emile De Becque: Sean David Cooper*
Jerome: Payson Cyphert
Ngana: Jaely Damasco
Jerome: Easton Dana
Henry: Skylar Gamble
Stewpot: LaRon Hudson
Radio Operator Bob McCaffrey: Nicholas Steven King
Ngana: Noelle Krugman
Ensign Nellie Forbush: Kate Marshall
Ensign Bessie Noonan: Ashley Nicole Martin
Lieutenant: Joseph Cable: Jay McGill
Ensign Dinah Murphy: Lauren Morgan
Commander William Harbison: Jason Plourde
Capt. George Brackett: TV Reeves
Yeoman. Herbert Quale: Jonny Rouse
Professor: Matthew Ruff
Luther Billis: Brad Rupp
Ensign Pamela Whitmore: Meggie Siegrist
Bloody Mary: Eleonore S. Thomas

*Member, Actors' Equity Association


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