Reviewed by Karen Schwartzkopf
The moment I saw South Pacific on Virginia Rep’s schedule, I knew it would be our family musical treat this summer. You see, we’re that family who listens to music all day, every day (and has forever), so this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic occupies a special place on our play list, along with The Sound of Music, and Cinderella, and Oklahoma!
In fact, when my girls were little, a bath-time favorite was, “I’m gonna wash that dirt right outta my hair…” Beyond this artistic, and admittedly superficial satisfaction, however, it didn’t occur to me until we were seated in November Theatre clapping with great fervor to honor the World War II veterans in attendance that night, that we were about to embark on a historical journey.
Musicals like South Pacific do this for a lot of people my age who desperately want their children to appreciate the arts in general and great musical theatre in particular. Once the door is opened, the historical context of these stories has to be addressed so the artistic merit can be fully appreciated by all ages.
That said, the teens watching South Pacific with me were both intrigued and horrified by the plot of this classic musical. If you’re not familiar with it, racism is explored rather candidly. It was interesting to discuss how much things have changed and how forthright it was back in the late 1940s, just after WWII, for producers to stage this musical in the first place. The idea that romantic relationships (and gasp! even marriage) between Caucasians and Pacific Islanders could cause such a kerfuffle was good for a few minutes of conversation at intermission. The more disturbing plot element, however, is Bloody Mary’s quest to, as my 16-year-old put it, “pimp out” her daughter, Liat, and the Marine’s physical relationship with this very young girl. The song, “Younger Than Springtime,” though beautifully performed by Matt Zimmerman as Lt. Joe Cable, had an ick-factor that was not lost on us in 2015.
Once these issues were out on the table, however, we all agreed Virginia Rep‘s South Pacific truly is an entertainment gem for families. From a phenomenal orchestra to adorable singing twins to fabulous ensemble numbers to the creative and well-crafted sets by Brian Prather, there is never a dull moment during this production.
Stacey Cabaj embodies the Nellie Forbush I remember from the original movie. (I missed the Glenn Close version.) She’s optimistic and upbeat, as “corny as Kansas in August,” alright! and shines brightly as the best actor in the production. Branch Fields, as Emile de Becque, could have sung every number in the show as far as we were concerned, such a pleasure was it to listen to him. “Some Enchanted Evening” was impeccable. A critically acclaimed operatic bass who has graced venues across the country, Fields’ stage presence was equally impressive. And yes, I found myself just a little disappointed that he did not have a single shirtless scene.
James Stover as Luther Billis, however, spent the majority of the show shirtless (with a great big anchor tattoo on his belly) – to great comedic effect. His sweet and funny Luther provided perfect balance to the more serious themes that were fleshed out during this snapshot of the War in the Pacific. Led by Luther, “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” from the Seabees (or sailors) had us chuckling in good fun, despite a modern-era feminist inclination to be insulted. Audra Honaker also deserves a shout-out for her comedic turn as Nellie’s best friend, Ensign Dinah Murphy.
After the show, we stepped outside for a photo next to the life-size poster of Branch Fields as Emile de Becque and everyone agreed that we would enthusiastically recommend this musical to friends and family this summer. Plus, if you are fortunate enough to have a World War II veteran in your life, he or she can attend South Pacific for free (two tickets per veteran, actually). And although our girls’ night out to see this wonderful musical was fabulous, I can’t imagine a better date night.
South Pacific runs through August 9 at Virginia Rep’s November Theatre. For showtimes and ticket information, including rush tickets and discounts for high school and college students, click here.