Theater Review: SOUTH PACIFIC (La Mirada Theatre)

by Tony Frankel on April 25, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

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NO MUSICAL IS AN ISLAND

Whenever it’s revived, it’s hard to imagine a more necessary musical than this 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner. 72 years after the Japanese surrender, it remains a healing tribute to resilience in adversity and tolerance in the thick of war. Consummate showmen, Rodgers and Hammerstein knew just why Americans need to believe in themselves and what threatens that faith. Nellie, a “cock-eyed optimist” from Little Rock, stationed with the Seabees in the Pacific, overcomes unnatural prejudices to love an older man, a French planter who married a Polynesian woman. Nellie’s small victory for her own humanity is the kind of good we want to believe can come from war.

Another magnificent reclamation effort by La Mirada Theatre, Glenn Casale’s all-embracing, nearly three-hour staging delivers everything but the Pacific Ocean vista of Bali H’ai’s twin peaks floating in the distance. With Musical Director Brent Crayon and his 13-member orchestra honoring Robert Russell Bennett’s full orchestrations, this talent-rich production simply revives a landmark musical to the glory it must get.

Only one week elapses in this noble “musical play” but it’s enough: R&H fuel the seemingly unstoppable action with very human impulses — to survive, to love, to make a difference. Never far from death even in the outlying islands of the Pacific campaign, four lovers count only on the moment.

Nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, so naïve she’s pure Americana, must forget her prejudiced past and her lover’s former marriage. Middle-aged French planter Emile de Becque knows that this late-blooming romance is his second chance in life. Idealistic Princeton grad Lt. John Cable tests his tolerance when he adores Liat, the beautiful daughter of Bloody Mary, a feisty middle-aged Tonkinese hawker of grass skirts. The musical wonders: If these characters can’t rise above their lesser selves, what‘s the point of the larger war they’re fighting?

Cleanly presented, James Michener’s very inevitable story rises to every occasion. John Cudia, much more age-specific for Emile than for his Curly in Oklahoma! at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, began a bit stiff, but warmed up to deliver the aching yearning in “Some Enchanted Evening” and the heartbreak in “This Nearly Was Mine.” Stephanie Renee Wall is the all-American girl next door as Nellie; she moves from unforced sweetness in that perfect waltz “A Wonderful Guy” to the defensive insouciance of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair” to the equally unforced nobility of the moving ending.

The owner of a thrilling tenor, Matt Rosell’s Lt. Joseph Cable offers an ardent “Younger Than Springtime” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” — Hammerstein’s unanswerable and timeless diagnosis of bigotry. Rodgers’ inexhaustibly wonderful score ranges from the vaudevillian panache of “Honey Bun” to the simple grace of “Dites-Moi.” At times the music delivers the unspoken, as with the interior monologue of “This I How It Feels” and “Twin Soliloquies.”

Embracing a roguish role, Jeff Skowron schemes and dreams as the ever opportunistic Seabee Luther Billis, whose drag turn in the Thanksgiving Follies shakes the grass skirts and brings down the house. Michael Rothhaar adds some blustery comic relief to his dead serious Captain, and Brett Schindele is so perfectly cast as the island’s Commander that it’s forgivable we don’t get to see him as his usual romantic lead with a gorgeous voice.

But it is Jodi Kimura’s Bloody Mary that is a revelation; there’s a simmering stew of disgust, anger, and desperation combined with a mysterious merriment and weary wisdom that makes “Happy Talk” both playful and sad. Her extra-exotic “Bali Ha’i” is a travelogue in itself.

Whether Lindy Hopping or jitterbugging Peggy Hickey’s charming choreography, the small chorus of sailors and nurses captivates as much as it convinces. Mary Folino delivers superb time-traveling, culture-contrasting costumes, and Jared A. Sayeg offers dramatic lighting throughout. Robert Kovach’s evocative set employs trees, a jeep, and a working shower yet almost pays homage to the simple backdrops of the original.

The La Mirada Theatre just became a destination vacation. Some enchanted evening indeed.

photos by Michael Lamont and
Austin Bauman

South Pacific
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on May 14, 2017
for tickets, call 562.944.9801
or visit La Mirada Theatre

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