Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2005

Now celebrating its 17th season, Park Playhouse presents one big musical every summer outdoors on a large stage erected at the Lake House in Washington Park in Albany. This year it is a cheerful production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer prize-winning 1949 show South Pacific. They also have a youth theatre program, Park Playhouse II, which mounts a show every summer too. This year its The Wizard of Oz running Tuesdays through Sundays August 2-14 at 5:30 pm. During the rest of the year they run their Lyrics and Lyricists series of evening cabaret-style events focusing on the works of various Broadway lyricists.

As soon as the announcer’s voice came over the loudspeakers to ask people to be seated for the start of the show I realized that I had to think differently about what I was going to see. One of the requests, along with turning off cell phones, pagers and beepers, was to please “keep your voices down out of respect for our actors and for your fellow audience members.” Everyone knows you don’t talk in the theatre while the show is up, I thought irately. And then I remembered that I was not in a theatre, I was in a park. Just then two boys piled gymnastically on one bicycle zoomed between my seat in the front row and the stage. Not something that happens regularly in a theatre but a common sight in Washington Park.

While I appreciated the fine press seat I was given, I was sorry that I wasn’t seated further back from the stage for two reasons. First, because all I could see was the stage, it was hard for me to remember that I was not in a theatre. And secondly because from where I was sitting I saw quite a different show from the majority of the audience. Needless to say the actors were very busy “playing to the balcony” which can look kind of goofy when observed at close range but which plays very professionally from a distance.

South Pacific is an excellent choice for Park Playhouse because it is a big show. Heck, it is about the whole South Pacific! They have fielded a large and excellent cast consisting of local amateurs and area professionals, many of whom are Park Playhouse regulars. Director Michael LoPorto, who is returning for a third year at the Playhouse, puts them through their paces with minimal fuss, and Choreographer Michael Kaleda seamlessly inserts lively dance numbers. Both men make excellent use of Venustiano “Ven” Borromeo’s split level set, although I was too close to enjoy the full effect of the scenes and dances staged on the top level.

LoPorto says in his director’s notes in the program: South Pacific is a play about many big issues: war, love, prejudice, life and death…When one directs such a play, it is very tempting to try to fiddle with it, add a concept or a unique spin to try to dazzle the audience…As I started my work…I realized that this play does not need to be tinkered with. The core of it, its story, is so compelling that any directorial concept or conceit would just be a distraction.”

Having clearly spelled out his vision, LoPorto does just that and has his cast play the play as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote it. I am used to a little more directorial spin on an old warhorse of a show like this, one that all but the very youngest theatergoers have seen on stage or screen or appeared in a high school, college or community theatre production, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover how very zippy and fresh the show became with this treatment. South Pacific is about love and war and prejudice and life and death, no one needs to embellish those events to make them dramatic and compelling.

Also, a Park Playhouse production does cater to the people who have never clapped eyes on South Pacific before – the very young and the folks who can’t afford to or aren’t motivated to attend live theatre. This is an introductory course in great American musical theatre, and it is a fine one.

South Pacific is also very much about young people – the men and women of the U.S. armed forces serving in the South Pacific during World War II. There are enough older folks to leaven the bread – Emile de Becque (John Anthony Lopez), the middle-aged French plantation owner, Bloody Mary (Lisa Passonno Franklin), the wily Tonkinese woman who survives by her wits and tenacity, and Captain Brackett (Franklin R. Leavitt), who defends the right of middle-aged men to be active and attractive – but the drama belongs to nurse Nellie Forbush (Keri Behan) and Lt. Joseph Cable (Brendan Hoffman), who face head on life’s most difficult choices and come to very different resolutions. Nellie and Joe are surrounded by their lively compatriots, the seabees and nurses with whom they serve, notably the comic antics of Luther Billis (Gregory Rose), a Sergeant Bilko prototype.

The sophistication of Hammerstein’s music has meant that the roles of these young people are often played and sung by more mature performers, but when you stop to think about it they would have been young. Very young, as military personnel of lower rank often are. So while I was initially taken aback by the very young and Southern Nellie Forbush that Behan offered up, I realized that she was far more true to the character than the 36-year-old Mary Martin who immortalized the role. For Nellie to have reached her mid-30’s without having confronted love and race relations would make her naïve in the extreme, and she is obviously written as a very intelligent woman. The character only works if her naivety is based on her youth and inexperience.

Lopez is a charming and heroic Emile. Both he and Behan are fine singers, and it is a treat to hear them blend their voices in such beautiful Rodgers’ melodies as Twin Soliloquies and Some Enchanted Evening.

I found Brendan Hoffman a little too laid back as Lt. Cable. While Hoffman was physically and vocally well suited to the role, this is a man who not only experiences extremes of emotion, but does so at the end while running a high malaria-induced fever. He needed more passion and desperation.

Leavitt is jovial yet authoritative as Captain Brackett, while Kaleda is merely bland as his second in command Commander Harbison. Whatever tension is supposed to exist between Harbison and Billis was non-existent, which made their final farewell scene awkward, to say the least.

Rose bounces through the delightful role of Luther Billis covered in fake tattoos and abundant optimism that his big break lies just around the corner. He wore his cocoanuts bravely in the uproarious Honey Bun production number, which also showcased Behan’s strong and raunchy lower vocal range.

My one big concern about this production was the lack of ethnic diversity in the cast, in a show where ethnic diversity is integral to the plot. Emile’s children Ngana (Julia Franklin) and Jerome (Charles Franklin) are supposed to be half Polynesian, a fact which is distressing to Nellie, distressing enough to make her call off her engagement and request a transfer to another base. Yet no attempt was made to make the Franklins, who are siblings and are the children of Lisa Passonno Franklin who plays Bloody Mary, look anything other than their own wholesome all-American selves. While they are both lively performers and singers, I wonder why a diverse city like Albany couldn’t produce two talented children of color, or at least why make-up and wigs couldn’t have been utilized to make the Franklins look more believably Polynesian.

For her part Lisa Passonno Franklin follows a long line of white women to play Bloody Mary. She is made-up and wigged to look passably Polynesian, and the effect is probably much more believable from further away from the stage. She plays Mary with great sass and foolishness. Susan Daly joins her later for a winning turn in the almost mute role of Bloody Mary’s daughter, Liat.

Having never been to Park Playhouse before, I was not prepared for the happy antics of Borromeo in his leading role as Producer. He bounds on to the stage at the start and at intermission and acts as the best of all possible salesmen for the Playhouse and for the theatre in general. I loved the little intermission song, to the tune of There is Nothing Like a Dame, which instructed me on where the concessions and rest rooms were, and, most importantly, how to give, give, give to support Park Playhouse. The whole cast comes out and sits along the front of the stage at intermission where they greet the public and autograph t-shirts and programs, which adds to the cheerful carnival atmosphere of a beautiful night in the park.

South Pacific is a long show, but I found the time passing quickly as one glorious and exciting number followed another. This is certainly an excellent way to introduce youngsters to the thrill of live theatre and the talents of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Pack a picnic and go!

The Park Playhouse production of South Pacific runs through August 14 on the lake in Washington Park in Albany, New York. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-434-0776 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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