Paper Mill Playhouse
Millburn, NJ - April 2014
Reviewed by John Kenrick
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What an enchanted evening! For anyone who loves musical theatre, there are few pleasures in life to match seeing a superb cast in a physically ravishing production of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, and that is exactly what Paper Mill is offering in its magnificent spring production of South Pacific. This company has the challenge/blessing of operating just a short train ride away from Manhattan. While this means top quality talent is available, it also means Paper Mill's audiences expect nothing less than a Broadway quality evening, even at a considerably more reasonable price.
I am delighted to report that Paper Mill's South Pacific brings together the perfect mix of Broadway veterans and gifted newcomers -- you know, the sort of thing Broadway itelf used to present before it became a haven for bloated tourist traps that recycle old movies and even older pop songs?
With the same exquisite sets (Michel Yeargan) and costumes (Catherine Zuber) that graced the recent Lincoln Center revival (both deservedly recieved Tony Awards for their efforts), one could not ask for a more handsome production. John Lasiter's lighting made every moment picture-perfect, including the simple yet breathtaking appearance of an island out of the mist during "Bali Hai." Director Rob Ruggiero has obvious affection and respect for this material, but his staging has so much fresh energy that it is hard to believe this show was written six decades ago.
The original 1949 production was so leery of looking over-staged that it had no official choreographer, allowing the actors to create a few bits of dance as needed. So it is no small praise to note that Ralph Perkins makes all his dance sequences appear as if they were perfectly organic elements of the character's lives. Music director Brad Haak makes his 17 musicians sound as if twice as many are in the pit, and conducts this score with such loving care that I daresay the ghosts of Rodgers and Hammertein joined in the opening night cheers. And at a time when so many productions are hampered by amplification issues, sound designer Randy Hansen deserves praise for his work here.
Mike McGowan plays French planter Emile de Becque with a disarming blend of continental charm and rugged good looks. As nurse Nellie Forbush, Erin Mackey is a real charmer, and makes this character's emotional journey totally believeable. The wonderful Loretta Ables Sayre, who damn near stole the Lincoln Center revival with her magical portrayal of the conniving Bloody Mary, is even better this time around, making this coarse and potentially unpleasant character totally irresistible. The real find in this production is Doug Carpenter, who not only plays Lt. Joseph Cable with extraordinary passion, but makes "Younger Than Springtime" genuinely breathtaking.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Tally Sessions handles the comic role of Luther Billis with great charm, and as Capt. Joseph Brackett, Jordan Lange wins solid laughs with dialogue that most actors foolishly treat as throw-aways. And kudos to the male ensemble for delivering "There is Nothing Like a Dame" with the kind of visual and vocal testosterone it all too rarely gets.
Not too long ago, many dismissed South Pacific as a tuneful but outdated museum piece. After more than a decade of war in the Middle East, this musical, with its depiction of Americans coming to terms with love, death and personal prejudice in a far off place seems as vital and up to date as ever. In this Paper Mill production, it is also one hell of a good show!