BWW Reviews - SOUTH PACIFIC Feels 'South Pathetic'
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by Jan Nargi
Based on the Lincoln Center Theater Production; music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan; adapted from "Tales of the Pacific" by James A. Michener; original sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Scott Lehrer; additional sets and adaptation, Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; hair and makeup design, Gerry Alterburg; music director, Richard Dunn II; music supervisor, Ted Sperling; musical staging recreated by Joe Langworth; musical staging by Christopher Gattelli; direction recreated by Sarna Lapine; original direction, Bartlett Sher
Cast of characters:
Ensign Nellie Forbush, Katie Reid; Emile de Becque, Marcelo Guzzo; Ngana, his daughter, Judae'a Brown; Jerome, his son, Cole Bullock; Henry, Ariel Padilla; Bloody Mary, Cathy Foy-Mahi; Liat, her daughter, Hsin-Yu Liao; Bloody Mary's Assistants, Hannah Bautista, Jessica Naimy and Angela Travino; Luther Billis, Christian Marriner; Stewpot (Carpenter's Mate Second Class, George Watts), Erik Cheski; Professor, Jake Bridges; Lt. Joseph Cable, United States Marine Corps, Shane Donovan; Capt. George Brackett, United States Navy, Robert John Biedermann; Cmdr. William Harbison, United States Navy, James Bould; Lt. Buzz Adams, Ben Mayne; Yeoman Herber Quale, Sailor, Michael Jayne Walker; Radio Operator Bob McCaffrey, Sailor, Royce McIntosh; Morton Wise, Seabee, James Erickson; Johnny Noonan, Seabee, Tripp Hampton; Tom O'Brien, Sailor, Jay Frisby; James Hayes, Sailor, Ariel Padilla; Kenneth Johnson, Sailor, Sheldon Henry; Petty Officer Hamilton Steeves, Matt Patrick; Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Hassinger, Andrew Mauney; Lt. Eustis Carmichael, Shore Patrolman, Matt Patrick; Lt. Genevieve Marshall, lead nurse, Laura Pavles; Ensign Dinah Murphy, Rachel Rhodes-Devey; Ensign Connie Walewska, Samantha Berman; Enign Sue Yaeger, Jenny Piersol; Ensign Cora MacRae, Jessica Naimy
Performances: Now through October 2, Broadway in Boston, Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street; tickets starting at $33 available at the Box Office Monday through Friday 10 am to 5 pm, through Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787, or online at www.BroadwayinBoston.com.
Something has gone very wrong from New York to Boston for the 2008 Tony Award-winning revival of South Pacific. What on Broadway was called "rapturous" by the New York Times is here - on the first leg of a new national tour - listless, aimless, and uninspired. Perhaps the entire cast and creative team swallowed a handful of the motion-sickness pills that the show's career opportunist Luther Billis tries to sell to his shipmates. How else to explain the complete lack of motion, either physical or emotional, in this turgid and tepid "reimagining" of what should be a grandly epic and romantic classic?
Set against the backdrop of World War II at a time when the Japanese were pummeling American troops from their strongholds on numerous islands, South Pacific should resonate with the immediacy of life or death situations. Sailors ache to escape their duties for a while on the exotic island of Bali Ha'i while couples fall in love instantly, clinging to what's warm and beautiful in an ugly and chaotic world. Troops busy themselves energetically with any number of distractions, from establishing ingenious "businesses" to putting on raucous shows to decorating little corners of their universe in ways that remind them of home. None of this urgency or desperation is evident in the touring production that occupies the Opera House through October 2. Without the necessary underlying presence of a constant threat of danger, the music and the romance fail to soar.
Relative newcomer Katie Reid plays Nellie Forbush, the quintessential "cockeyed optimist" from Little Rock, Arkansas. Opera singer Marcelo Guzzo is Emile de Becque, the dashing expatriate French plantation owner whose two children from a previous marriage to a Polynesian woman trigger racist fears in Nellie. Reid (whose voice is as slight as her personality) and Guzzo (a fine singer but inexperienced actor) have so little chemistry together that one is never emotionally invested in their story. What's worse, Reid has almost no spark or spunk in a role that demands both, and Guzzo is uncomfortably wooden, hardly the charismatic figure capable of sweeping a much younger small-town girl off her feet with one glance from across a crowded room. In the second act when Nellie says to de Becque, "We're not blasé," my silent thought was, "Oh yes you are."
The tour's director Sarna Lapine, supposedly "recreating" Bartlett Sher's original Tony Award-winning direction, does Reid and Guzzo no favors, either. During the first half of "A Wonderful Guy," in which Nellie finally celebrates and exclaims her love for Emile to her fellow nurses, Reid sits passively and sings almost plaintively. Finally when she does get up, ostensibly unable to contain her joy, she executes a half-hearted cartwheel that is strictly by the numbers. Even more criminal is how Guzzo is directed during what should be the most exhilarating moments of the show. In both "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine," instead of building to an explosion of uncontained emotion, he pulls back vocally just as he should let loose in a crescendo of passion. As a result he robs the show - and the audience - of their much needed catharsis.
Shane Donovan as Lt. Cable fares somewhat better as the preppy from Princeton whose love for the beautiful Tonkinese girl Liat (the delicate Hsin-Yu Liao) tears at his own deep-seeded prejudices. He sings "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" with biting conviction, but even here his back-and-forth blocking is so random that the subtle separation on stage of a group of white sailors from a group of black sailors goes almost unnoticed.
As Bloody Mary, Liat's profiteering mother who would even prostitute her own daughter to secure a better life for themselves, Cathy Foy-Mahi is a troubling paradox. At times she falls into stock comic caricature. Other times she is a conniving survivor. She's at her best when seducing Lt. Cable to shed his inhibitions in "Bali Ha'i" and when turning "Happy Talk" into more of a plea to see her own dreams realized than a light novelty number of young lovers getting to know one another.
Christian Marriner as the perpetual schemer Luther Billis has some nice moments with Reid as Nellie. He is also the only actor on stage with any discernible energy. But he falls flat in "Honey Bun," primarily because of bland choreography and static staging. Amateurish direction also turns the performances of Robert John Biedermann as Capt. Brackett and James Bould as Cmdr. Harbison into ineffectual buffoons. The cartoonish quality of the war room scenes is downright insulting. Perhaps Lapine should watch a few episodes of NCIS to appreciate military gravitas.
I could go on about the small and underutilized ensemble, the false advertising claims of a large orchestra (10 musicians were listed in the program), and the excruciatingly tedious pace. Suffice it to say that yes, as the pull quotes affirm, this is "a South Pacific unlike any other" and "a show you will remember forever."
Thank you, but I'd rather not.
PHOTO by Peter Coombs: Marcelo Guzzo as Emile de Becque and Katie Reid as Nellie Forbush