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Encore’s “South Pacific” Steps it up a Notch (Review) June 5, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
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Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, The Sound of Music and South Pacific are my favorites. The former is as fresh as the day it was written. The latter has seen better days. But there is no doubting that Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production (seen in preview) is beautiful and well-done…in fact, it steps up the quality of larger-scale shows at Encore by not just one, but many notches.


Nellie Forbush goes about meeting Emile, crowing about it in song, then washing him out of her hair, then falling for him, then breaking up, then waiting for him to return from a secret mission…and well, that is about the gist of it.

Marlene Inman is an excellent Nellie, who with her classical vocal training matches Stephen West’s Emile throughout the evening without ever becoming overshadowed by him. Whether she is singing about being a cockeyed optimist, or joyously expounding that she’s in love with a wonderful guy, Marlene is a wonder.

Stephen West plays Emile de Becque pretty much as you would expect — proud ex-Frenchman, honest to a fault, and a little off his head in love. His voice soars in the intimate Encore space.

Bloody Mary is played by a very fine Gayle Martin. Her performance is spot-on perfect. Matthew Brennen is simply marvelous as Luther Billis — in song, dance, and acting — its a great performance from a terrific performer. He had the sold-out preview audience eating out of his hand.

Dashing Lt Joseph Cable is played by Sebastian Gerstner in a straight-forward honest performance, and Liat is well performed by Teola Lutsker. That their love story is left to languish can be blamed on writers Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan who had no idea that the catalyst of a relationship 70 years down the road will not be “marry or face a bleak future” — the same can be said of Emile and Nellie of course, and it is.

The entire supporting cast is excellent — though multiple times in the show, it cries out for a much much larger ensemble. The troup deployment at the end is particularly weak with such a small cast. It looks a bit more like they are heading off to some R&R rather than facing war on the next island over…But that is a minor point here — the cast is well utilized, and both the men and the women deliver in song and acting. There isn’t a weak cast member in the bunch.

Daniel C Walker’s set is functional and colorful — moreso than many past Encore endeavors, and I solute that!…a bright sunny island setting, and a moody colorful Bali Ha’i make for a happy me. I am certain that the one unfortunate cloud in the background will be repainted before tonight.

Matthew Brennan’s choreography works well without ever feeling forced, and Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes are period-gorgeous. The 7-piece orchestra sounds superb, and the sound design for the show is terrific. (The show was musically directed by R MacKenzie Lewis, and Brian Rose serves as conductor).

Director Carla Milarch keeps everything rolling along on schedule…Act I with it’s song after song…Act II with it’s war-story and no original songs for the last 40 minutes (another 70-year old criticism of the show). It all plays out as expected, and histrionics are kept to a minimum (which is great, cause I’ve seen plenty of productions of South Pacific ruined by screaming Liat’s and overwrought military personnel). She uses a gentle touch here, and it works well in the intimate space. The show is long and clocks in at 2:45 with intermission, though that was standard for the day when written.

The sole letdown is not the production, nor the cast, nor the beautiful things going on here — its just that the world has changed so much that what happens on stage in this story just doesn’t “matter” anymore — it has a dated script that insists that love and marriage are vital, and without marriage a woman is nothing and alone in the world. I think we all know that isn’t true now — as it wasn’t then — but there it is. And that basic storyline is very exposed when its 9 feet away from the audience. The show’s political message (look quickly, it comes and goes in a 1-minute-40-second song in act II “You’ve Got to be carefully taught”) is handled adeptly here, but the message barely resonates. (The song was so controversial in the 50’s that it caused a national debate about what songs are appropriate for the theatre stage). The story of interracial marriage is dated, especially as it drives the entire storyline and was the entire raison d’etre for the musical in the first place.

Still, this is an excellent production of South Pacific and you should make efforts to see it. Nostalgia for us oldsters…something new for the youngsters, even if it no longer carries much emotional heft…and beautiful performances all around make for the best “large scale” musical in Encore’s history to date.

South Pacific continues through July 3 and tickets are selling very very fast. Get yours now before the performance you want is sold out. TheEncoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200