South Pacific: Love in the heat of war

In the years following World War II, many tales of soldier’s experiences were written. From Europe to the Pacific, stories of heroism and life happenings were a daily occurrence. No matter where you go or what you do life still goes on with work, learning, love and hate. After his time serving, James A. Michener wrote a book called “Tales of the South Pacific” that would be transformed into one of Rogers & Hammerstein’s greatest musicals with the help of a fellow war veteran Joshua Logan. Now the Orange County Performing Arts Center presents the Lincoln Center production of “South Pacific” under the direction of Bartlett Sher.

Sher’s along with Music Director Ted Sperling and Musical Staging of Christopher Gattelli have brought back the strength and power of this classic musical. Let’s not forget that with the help of their own little brigade of workers, artists and outstanding performers “South Pacific” takes you back to a place where paradise is what you make it.

It is early in World War II and the world is fighting on many fronts both at home and a far. Our tale starts with a French expatriate, Emile, who is coy in his feelings for Navy Ensign Nellie. Emile has his secrets as does Nellie yet they both are in love with one another and could care less. Lt. Cable is new to the island and is here for a mission that could help the allied fight but he needs the help of a local Frenchman, Emile, who knows the area the mission is to take place. To help alleviate the tension of the stories is Billis, the entrepreneur comedic enlisted man who is always looking for a ‘project’ that could make him a buck. Billis may be the funny man but he knows everyone and how to help in any situation. But as in all stories love is always challenged with the times and it becomes apparent when Nellie, who is from Little Rock, AK, learns that Emile has children from a previous marriage, to an ‘islander’, as is Lt. Cables love is tested after he falls for a local girl. Times test of love, faith, honor, and ideologies will unravel in this South Seas paradise.

As mentioned to be one of the great Rogers & Hammerstein musicals “South Pacific” does not lollygag on memorable numbers. From ‘There is Nothin’ Like a Dame’, ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ to one of the all time standards ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ you are pulled into the feelings and expressions of life. I must say the songs alone are nothing without an amazing cast of vocal artist that never cease to grab you at any moment. Carmen Cusack as Nellie is the first to hold onto you when she starts singing ‘A Cockeyed Optimist’. Carmen has the southern style to a tee when she opens up and delivers any of her songs. You just cannot help but smile and enjoy the melody of her voicing this character with that laid back, sitting on a swing and sipping some sweet tea feel. Lt. Cable is brought to the stage by Anderson Davis with such gusto as the stereotype officer and sings that way. Anderson’s rendition of ‘Younger Than Springtime’ and ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ shows his range of emotional singing that you can see his internal fight for what is right and wrong and when you need to go with your gut. Bloody Mary played by Jodi Kimura is one of two characters that provide levity in our story. Jodi has done some amazing characters before in past shows but none more fitting than that of Bloody Mary. She owns the part and can be that ever scheming, always planning, sarcastic Bloody Mary looking out for herself and her kin. ‘Bali Ha’I’ and ‘Happy Talk’ come across from the heart beckoning you to take her advice. The other character to provide a little comedic uplift is Luther Billis played by Timothy Gulan. Billis is much like Bloody Mary but more on the financial side. Timothy plays him with hilarity and panache much like Ray Walston did in the 1958 film. You love how Timothy portrays Billis as the one who tries to own up to everything anybody does wrong, to be there pal but you see it’s because of the caring he has for everyone and want for them to be safe. Timothy does a wonderful job with the help of his two cohorts, who as well do outstanding, Stewpot and Professor played by Genson Blimline and Rusty Ross respectively. Last I want to say is David Pittsinger as Emile will blow you away. David’s deep operatic voice so resonates, that during ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ you are filled with the infatuation he has for Nellie. It doesn’t stop there as David’s pure presence and standing fill the stage each time he steps out. Determined and devoted as Emile is to his family and his feelings, Davie exudes onstage. Bravo.

This is not to say that the rest of the cast is a footnote, oh no. Sher has assembled an excellent supporting cast and chorus to back the principles. Each of them has their part and plays it up to the audience. It is helped with the sights and sounds of such artisans like Michael Yeargans sets that include a scaled replica Corsair or the pinup girls on the shower stalls to Catherine Zuber costumes that take you back to a time where everything had style from swimsuits to GI uniforms. The ambiance of sound is fitting and not overused, under the direction of Scott Leher. It is truly a pleasurable night of Broadway in the OC. It truly is an exceptional performance by a very diverse cast, again BRAVO.

Sher and his company have brought back a show that some tell me is outdated or inappropriate for today’s audiences. As I am the one writing this I can disagree and I will. It is very much appropriate for our time. It is a show not just about love and war but about understanding we all come from different backgrounds. We all have different stories as to why we are, act, say, do the things we do, as Lt. Cable sings in ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’. It is in the story that we see we can overcome those upbringings and see people as we should, as individuals much like Bloody Mary professes in ‘Happy Talk’. So take some time out, step away from the newspapers, TV, radio and go watch how life then, can still reflect today. As the show begins with and ends with the song ‘Dites-Moi’ asks the question why is life beautiful and fun, maybe it is because someone loves us? Loves us for who we are and nothing but.

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