Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 1999
Mac-Haydn is off to a good start this season with a second fine musical production – this time Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1950 opus “South Pacific”.
Based on a group of shorth stories by James Michener, “South Pacific” was a tremendous hit for Rodgers and Hammerstein, already well established on Broadway by then. It was THE Broadway theatrical event for my parents and their generation, and the score is outstanding. Unfortunately Hammerstein, a cock-eyed optimist if there ever was one, wrote the book as well as the lyrics, and what Michener intended as bittersweet tales of love, heartbreak, courage and death in the Pacific theatre during World War II, get drowned out by Hammerstein’s relentlessly happy lyrics. A man is suffering from malaria and his heart is being torn in two by his love for a Tonganese woman and his deep-seated racial prejudices, and Hamnmerstein gives us a number entitled “Happy Talk”.
It is difficult for this current generation in this part of the country to understand that there was a time when a Princeton educated man like Lt. Cable would think it fine to sleep with a girl of another race, but not to marry her. Or a time when a happy, open-minded woman like Nellie Forbush would refuse to marry the man she loved because his late common-law wife was not white, and neither were the children they had together – the children he is raising and is asking her to raise with him should she accept his proposal.
Shannon Polly makes an enchanting Nellie Forbush. Of all the musical comedy heroines I have always felt that Nellie Forbush was the closest to being a real person. Polly is very “real” on stage, making some of her fun seem down-right spontaneous. She does a better job with the upbeat moments than with the serious ones, but since Hammerstein is determined to convince us that everyone stationed in the south Pacific during World War II had just tons of fun every waking moment, her deficiencies are minimized.
Paul Nelson is almost too handsome to be real as Emile deBecque – looking as if he stepped off the cover of a romance novel – and he sings very well, except for those last three high notes on “Some Enchanted Evening”. I liked Kurt Martinuzzi better as the doomed, upper-class officer Lt. Joseph Cable, than I did as Harold Hill in Mac-Haydn’s last offering “The Music Man”. Martinuzzi’s voice seemed more at home with Rodgers’ music than with Meredith Wilson’s.
Of the two character leads, Jed Alexander was a hoot as scheming Luther Billis. Mac-Haydn seems to have brought him on board as their official second banana/comic reflief man for the season, and Alexander fills the bill well. Marcia Kunkel, who I felt underplayed Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn in”Music Man”, showed much more force of character as Bloody Mary this time ’round, and sang “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk” very nicely.
The image everyone carries in their head of “South Pacific” is Mary Martin washing that man right out of her hair. Every woman who plays Nellie Forbush must endure an enforced period over over-washed hair. I must say that when the time came I became so nervous about how the Mac-Haydn was going to handle the water on the stage and whether the hair-washing activities were going to short out Polly’s body mike that I could hardly enjoy the number. Mary Martin did not have a body mike to contend with, but I still wonder whether the gimmick is worth it nowadays.
The sets at the Mac-Haydn are always minimal since it is theatre in the round and set peices would obscure some of the action from some of the people all of the time, but Jason Lee Courson has done a good job of giving the feel of the topics with a few back-drops. Andrew Gmoser’s lighting design is effective and blends seamlessly into the action on stage. Jimm Halliday has struggled to get a uniform feel for the sailors, officers and nurses, often without real uniforms, but often misses the mark. I was constantly confused by the Marines in Army fatigues, but such are the joys of summer stock.
“South Pacific” runs through June 20 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY. The show runs just under three hours with one intermission. Call 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999