A number of us theater critics were dubious about whether the small Ivoryton Playhouse should be taking on Roger & Hammerstein’s large production of South Pacific. We also wondered whether the 1949 hit musical that takes place during World War II hasn’t been revived in theaters and high schools to the saturation point. You can rest assured that not only has the Ivoryton done a superb job of staging South Pacific under the spot-on direction and choreography of David Edwards, it’s done so in a fresh and polished production worthy of a trip to the little town of Ivoryton.
First off, this is a musical with such a remarkable romantic score that even if you somehow never saw the stage version or 1958 film adaptation, you most likely know the majority of tunes by heart from “Some Enchanted Evening” to “Younger than Springtime,” to “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair,” just to name a few.
The Ivoryton production capitalizes on the show’s magical music with a finely tuned pit orchestra that’s meticulously directed by Michael McAssey.
The theater was also lucky to score standout professionals in lead roles—Essex residents David Pittsinger and his wife Patricia Schuman, who are both making their debuts at the Ivoryton Playhouse.
Pittsinger, who starred as Emile de Becque—the French expatriate plantation owner—in the acclaimed production of the musical at New York’s Lincoln Center, reprises his role on the Ivoryton stage.
Pittsinger’s operatic bass-baritone in the precisely phrased “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “This Was Nearly Mine” will make you swoon.
Schuman, an internationally celebrated soprano, is cast as Bloody Mary, a Pacific islander who barters items like grass skirts with the sailors stationed on nearby islands, and is proudly learning English. She performs a hauntingly beautiful rendition of the iconic “Bali Ha’i.”
Adrianne Hicks is also fabulous as Emile’s love interest, Nellie Forbush, an American nurse stationed on the island. Her upbeat, charming performance and lovely voice does justice to her many numbers, including the waltzing “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy.”
The second thing that makes South Pacific work so well in this production is how Edwards has adapted it to the limits of the stage, while keeping it visually interesting. Daniel Nischan has designed a simple set with a centerpiece of tropical flowers and a few movable props. But what really does the trick is Marcus Abbott’s gorgeous lighting. Taking its cue from the Technicolor movie version, he creates the illusion of scene changes as the lighting glows tropical orange, melding into deep, ocean blue, with a rainbow of colors in-between.
There is even enough room on stage for a rousing “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” sung and danced by an ensemble of sailors, seabees, and marines, nicely led by William Selby as the smooth-talking sailor Luther Billis.
Thirdly, although sadly, the musical, based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tales of the South Pacific (adapted for stage by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan), is still relevant more than 65 years since it first hit Broadway because of its issues of racism that are more front and center than ever in the news. The sailors use the racial slur “Japs” indiscriminately. And when Nellie discovers that Emile has two mixed race children from a previous relationship—the adorable Kaiya Colguhoun as Ngana and Dylan Huber as Jerome, who sing the sweet duet, “Dites-Moi”—she is ready to leave him, until she realizes the error of her ways.
Lt. Joseph Cable, played by Peter Carrier, cuts short his budding romance with the young Tonkinese Liat (Bloody Mary’s daughter), performed by Annelise Cepero, in fear of being ostracized if he were to marry an Asian woman. He bitterly sings, “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” which has lyrics that were controversial to include in a 1948 musical, and unfortunately still ring true:
“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
“Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
“And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
“You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
But, the song is also a hopeful reminder that prejudice is learned and therefore can be unlearned.
The running time of the show is over 2 ½ hours with an unbalanced first act almost twice as long as the second act—but that’s how the show was written—and the riveting music and performances keep one’s attention.
South Pacific runs through July 26 at The Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street in Ivoryton. For tickets and performance schedule, call the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or online visit www.ivorytonplayhouse.org