Paper Mill presents a thoroughly enjoyable ‘South Pacific’

MILLBURN – If you would like to travel back through time and space and land on a balmy tropical island in the early 1940s and be entertained by a musical classic with many of your favorites, then find your way to the Paper Mill Playhouse this month for the timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “South Pacific.”

As this musical with a message begins, and we hear the lively overture, recognizing many of the tunes, we are treated to the first words of author James A. Michener’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, “Tales of the South Pacific,” upon which the musical is based: “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we call islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.”

Timed perfectly with our own recent balmy weather, this musical, directed by Rob Ruggiero, with musical direction by Brad Haak, takes place during World War II and tells the story of an American nurse, Nellie Forbush, expertly played by Broadway veteran Erin Mackey, who is stationed on an island in the South Pacific. Her struggles begin when she falls in love with a French expatriate, Emile de Becque, convincingly played by another Broadway veteran and Paper Mill Playhouse alumnus, Mike McGowan, and subsequently learns he has mixed-race children.

Both Forbush and McGowan entertain us with their superb voices. Despite Forbush’s teeny size, she belts out many of our old favorites, including “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”

That entertaining number, which shows off the wonderful women of the ensemble in lovely 1940’s bathing suits, courtesy of costume designer Catherine Zuber, and features Ralph Perkins’ amusing and playful choreography, which includes actual soap bubbles being tossed about, is wonderful and great fun.

McGowan’s deep voice is truly a treasure, and for me, is reminiscent of Robert Goulet’s singing in Camelot. “Some Enchanted Evening,” sung by McGowan, is just beautiful and stays with us long after we leave the theater.

A subplot revolves around the internal conflict experienced by Lt. Joe Cable when he falls in love with Liat, an island girl. We are captivated by the steamy scenes between this young couple, joyous as they fall in love, and then devastated as Cable, played by Doug Carpenter, and Liat, played by Jessica Wu, seem to be torn apart by Cable’s inability to reconcile his feelings for her with the norms he feels are placed upon him by society with regard to Liat’s race. Both Carpenter and Wu are magnificent in their ability to evoke these emotions from their audience — and Wu with barely uttering a word.

When Cable sings “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a song about prejudice, we are reminded of the truth revealed in those famous lyrics.
Loretta Ables Sayre, who plays the character Bloody Mary, Liat’s mother, is a standout actress and comedienne. She commands the stage and our attention with her grand personality and presence. Sayre received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for the same role on Broadway. Need I say more?

Luther Billis, played by Tally Sessions, and Stewpot, played by Ryan Andes, are fabulously funny throughout the show and when joined by the talented male ensemble for the rousing “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” they bring down the house.

Jordan Lage as Captain George Brackett, Rob Richardson as Commander William Harbison and Scott Anthony Joy as Professor are all quite convincing and realistic in their roles.

The sets, by Michael Yeargan, are cleverly done and beautiful in their simplicity and island-like quality — and combined with the dramatic and stunning lighting design by John Lasiter, completely set the moods and tones of the scenes.

But, as usual, it is the children who steal the show. After the overture, the first sound we hear is the lovely laughter of children. Our eyes feast on two delightful and adorable children — a boy, Jerome, played by Bonale Fambrini, and a girl, Ngana, played by Gabby Guttierrez, who speak and sing in French, including the classic “Dites-moi.” Several of the lines, translated into English are: Tell me why, life is beautiful … Is it because you love me?” We later learn that these are the mixed-race children of de Becque.

The children’s innocence and the sweetness of the lyrics juxtaposed against the issues of racial prejudice which are weaved into this musical point to the ugliness of defining people by race and send a strong message. For its time, this was progressive thinking. But unfortunately, the message is still relevant today.

South Pacific is playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through May 4.

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