By Bill Beard
South Pacific is one of the absolute best of the wonderful old musicals, yet it seems never to have aged at all; the perfect combination of story (based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Tales of the South Pacific), music (Rodgers and Hammerstein), and script (Joshua Logan). It is a “timeless classic,” a story of love, of heroism, of courage, of optimism, of America. Set during World War II, this epic tale is told with humor, passion, beauty, action, with one of Broadway’s most impressive musical scores.
South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949; and was twice made into a film: 1958 and 2001. It won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score and for Best Author. It ran on Broadway for 1,925 performances, yet it is not that often produced these days.
But now, The Fireside Theatre in Ft. Atkinson has opened a marvelous new production. As my many past reviews of Fireside productions will indicate, I believe that their shows are always “good” and most of the time they are excellent. The current production of South Pacific is marvelous; well worth the less than an hour drive up Interstate 90.
Fireside shows are always well designed, scenery, costumes, lighting and props. It is a fully professional, Equity house, with actors brought in from New York, Chicago, the West Coast, etc., with a heavy maximum of experienced Equity performers, many of whom have been cast multiple times here at The Fireside.
As always, Director Ed Flesch gives us a strong cast. His wisest choice was putting Elizabeth DeRosa in as Nellie Forbush. I thought she was “nearly perfect” as Mary Poppins earlier this year, but this time she offered us a completely different persona as a Navy Nurse on duty on an island in the Pacific Ocean: charming, lovable and fun-loving, complete with just the right amount of Little Rock Arkansas accent. I’m convinced that Ms. DeRosa could handle any leading lady role with great success. (I would love to have seen her in My Fair Lady.) Her splendid handling of I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of Hair, and A Wonderful Guy here in South Pacific was spot on.
Equally effective as Emile DeBecque, the mysterious French planter on the island, is the handsome and talented Jon Reinhold, a favorite of Fireside audiences. In the 2011 production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, I described him as “the ultimate Adam Pontipee,” with the gorgeous singing voice. No surprise! I now believe he is the “ultimate Emile DeBecque”. The theatre is filled with his rich, full Baritone voice; and yet he never overpowers others. His numbers: Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine, flawless. He evidently has some opera training, or experience, which occasionally pushes a high finale note a little too big.
Of course the comic fun of the show is primarily the job of the chorus of sailors. Although one cannot really see them as a chorus, because each one is handled as a “strong supporting role” – a la Phil Sloves as Stewpot, Rob Riordan as The Professor, aided and abetted by Eric Brian Waters, Cody Gerszewski, Maurice Dawkins and Doug Reed. The whole gang is constantly obsessed, absolutely fixated on females, or rather the lack thereof, profoundly expressed in the rousing production number, “There is nothing like a Dame!”
But the ringleader and trouble-maker is the conniving, ingenious prankster, Luther Billis. Played by the talented Carlos Lopez, he is always on the lookout for some means to get a boat and go to the next island over, where the daughters of the French planters have been sent for safety from the sailors. Mr. Lopez proves his right to the role with an impressive resume of musicals and plays, and a natural sense of comedy, excellent timing and a knack for the ridiculous, as evidenced in his clowning in Honey Bun, grass skirt and coconut shell accouterments and all.
The distaff side of the hilarity is provided by the free and uninhibited performance of Leanne Acero as Bloody Mary in her debut at Fireside. This actress has an indomitable spirit and matchless creative instincts, making this one of the best Bloody Marys I’ve ever seen. She shows a marvelous understanding of the comedic range and demands in creating this challenging character, and the control and fine tuning that one needs to dare to explore all of the extremes of the comedy, while never letting those extremes go beyond the basic shape of the role. Ms. Acero is wonderful. Her signature song, Bali Ha’i, is a special moment in the evening.
The role of Liat, Genevieve Shi, is the Tonkinese girl whom Mary gives to Lt. Cable. She is stunning, and with the handsome Andrew Keeler as Cable, they are striking. His love song, Younger Than Springtime, is one of the loveliest ballads ever written. It was fine here, but needed a bit more underlying fervor, depth of passion in the first Act, and more of a sense of self loss in Act II.
Kudos to long time Fireside regulars, the versatile Michael Haws as Capt. Brackett, and Joe Lehman as Commander Harbison. And Nellie’s backup crew of Nurses, Corinne Scott, Natalie Hershman and Isabel Garcia, along with tall, beautiful Allison Foote, were effective as the girls’ half of the solid ensemble.
As always, I heartedly recommend this show as a “must see” on your list for the rest of May and through to June 4. South Pacific is not often produced these days, but it is one of the best stories ever made into a musical. Don’t miss it!
For information and reservations call 800-477-9505, or go to FiresideTheatre.com.