By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
Just in case you want to know a bit about the show, but don’t feel like reading the rest of this beautifully and thoughtfully written critique…but I digress…, this production of “South Pacific” by the Fredericksburg-based Riverside Dinner Theatre housed in the handsome Riverside Center for the Performing Arts is a polished gem and one of the best productions of this show I’ve seen anywhere. And, trust me, the number of “South Pacific” productions I’ve attended runs way into double digits! Go for the beautiful singing and just as beautiful-to-look-at cast but stay for the surprisingly current storyline and the achingly beautiful love stories.
This 70-year-old show, based on stories penned by James Michener and set to the music and words of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, is about genuine people tossed together in a strange corner of the world. It presents a glorious gallery of interesting people and gorgeous music that needs to be revisited again and again. Probably most of my dear readers know or at least have heard about this beloved musical, but if not…here’s Sara’s Cliff Notes version:
“South Pacific” is a musical set around 1942 during World War II and is about military life on a South Seas island that lies outside the fighting. Most of the action revolves around the romance between Navy nurse and small-town gal Ensign Nellie Forbush (the radiant Kate Marshall) and Emile de Beque (handsome devil, Branch Fields), a wealthy French planter. Kate’s bright, pretty voice is a fitting complement to Branch’s large bass sound. Their “Soliloquy” is so beautiful, the audience held its collective breath for the duration, then burst into applause. But when Branch Fields, who is a renowned opera singer, lends his swoon-worthy voice to “Some Enchanted Evening,” Nellie isn’t the only one in the theater who falls for him! Ahem. Cough. Their relationship seems as if it may grind to a halt, however, when she learns that he has two mixed-race children, something her entire upbringing declares is wrong.
The other main thread deals with Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (the charismatic Joey Birchler) and how he is seduced by the charms of island life after he falls under the spell of a beautiful young native girl Liat (the lovely Sally Roehl). Liat is the daughter of the indomitable super entrepreneur and fabulous singer, Bloody Mary (Kadejah Oné). Bloody Mary’s opening dialog in which she is selling shrunken heads among other things, seems almost banshee-like, but when she sang the first notes of her signature song, “Bali Ha’i”, the whole audience perked up and you could hear sighs. Seriously! I’m not making this up!
Joe Cable, not unlike Ensign Nellie, is convinced he can’t stay in the adjacent island paradise, “Bali Ha’i, and marry a Tonkinese girl because she’s not like him. His family and the world he came from would be horrified. By the way, wait until you hear his gorgeous voice! Oh, my! Speaking of swooning (fanning myself!).
Lt. Cable and Emile de Becque are sent by the navy on a dangerous mission, meanwhile the women they love are left behind to worry and soul search about their relationships. Nellie finally comes to the realization that her French planter with the two dark-skinned children, whom she has come to adore, are not so different from her. Nellie also helps Liat cope with (spoiler alert) the tragic loss of Lt. Cable. If you can sit through Lt. Cable’s rendition of “You Have to be Carefully Taught” and not tear up, well, just you wait! And the show’s ending will also get you! Bring several tissues.
Among the other cast members who sparkle and shine onstage is Captain George Brackett, United States Navy, played by a real navy Lieutenant, Robert John Biedermann, who served in Viet Nam! His performance is by turns hilariously funny and amazingly moving. Then there is Alan Hoffman, who plays Luther Billis and is a favorite of this theatre, having appeared in many productions. His comedy timing is perfection and he can dance up a storm, too! The “Honeybun” number he does with Nellie is the best choreography I’ve ever seen of that number!
And speaking of choreography, it’s superb and the accomplished Penny Ayn Maas, director and choreographer, is responsible. Wow. Just wow! As a matter of fact, the set by Frank Foster, scenic designer, is simple, but beautifully realized in every scene. And the lighting and projections by Michael Jarett, lighting designer, are thrilling and lovely as well.
The music director Angela Donadio, who’s returning to Riverside, has done a wonderful job of making her tight group of eight sound like a full orchestra! Kudos to her! Her pace is good as well as her underscoring the songs. However, because the orchestra is in front of the stage, the full sound can sometimes upstage a singer, but that is rare. And I must mention the costume designer, Kyna Chilcot and properties master, Bridgid K. Burge, whose 1940’s navy uniforms, formal dresses, as well as dinner clothes for Emile are all simply beautiful. But the “Honey Bun” costumes of oversized navy whites for Nellie and the backup girl group in navy tops with shorts, are adorable! I loved everything about that number!
You will not want to miss this marvelous production of “South Pacific”! And don’t say, “Oh, I saw the movie, or I saw it before at such and such theatre.” Really, when a production of this caliber comes along, you owe it to yourself to get out and experience it, and of course, it’s a “must see show” for all musical theatre fans! See below for ticket information. And hurry, it closes September 15!
Performance and Ticket Information: Running time: approximately two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission. “South Pacific” plays through September 15 at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets, call (540) 370-4300 or purchase them online at www.riversidedt.com.