Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Stages St. Louis closes out its 2017 season with Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic tale of love and loss, South Pacific. While a St. Louis classic pays homage to a Broadway classic, it was only fitting that Executive Producer Jack Lane took to the stage to talk about the future of Stages St. Louis. Announcing their next season which includes I Do, I Do, Mamma Mia, and Oklahoma!, Lane had another revelation: Stages St. Louis will be moving to a new location. Hopefully, within the next two years, they will complete construction on a brand new entrainment complex in downtown Kirkwood which will house the award-winning theatre troupe. Just like with this production of South Pacific, Stages St. Louis takes on another ambitious project.
There are three major components to South Pacific: the intriguing story, the cast of colorful characters, and Rogers and Hammerstein’s outstanding score. Set during World War II, the story of South Pacific revolves around Ensign Nellie Forbush (Leah Berry) a Navy nurse who hails from Little Rock. During her tour in the South Pacific, she falls in love with a French plantation owner, Emile de Becque (Michael Halling), who has a dark past. Luther Billis (Mark Diconzo) and his group of seabees long for the nearby island of Bali Ha’i where tales of flirtatious women and wild rituals fill their thoughts. Bloody Mary (Joanne Javien), a local merchant, befriends the men while peddling her rare trinkets and grass skirts.
Lieutenant Cable (Matthew Hydzik) arrives on the island with a secret mission to turn the war by setting up a spy station on a remote island. While his unit plans the mission, Cable takes some leave and visits Bali Ha’i where he falls in love with Liat (Sydney Jones), Bloody Mary’s daughter. Emile divulges his dark past—including the fact he has two children with a local Polynesian woman—to Nellie, who reacts negatively due to her own racism.
The colorful characters Hammerstein and Logan created (based on the book Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener) bring these complicated stories to life. The cast of South Pacific does a magnificent job in paying homage to these wonderful creations by giving their roles a sense of nostalgia. Leah Berry as Ensign Nellie Forbush commanded the stage with her overwhelming stage charisma and her breathtaking vocals. Having seen Berry perform in Stage’s annual Academy fundraiser, Cheers!, the actress impressed the crowd with her powerful, yet elegant vocals. Those vocals served her well in this production as she gave the necessary amount of love and respect to Rogers and Hammerstein’s treasured songs.
It took a moment for the audience to warm up to Michael Halling as Emile de Becque, Nellie’s love interest. His French accent was a bit thick, but his charm came through during his astonishing vocals. The chemistry between Halling and Berry blossomed as the production unfolded. There is something about Halling’s vocal delivery that transported the audience to the golden age of musicals.
Joanne Javien did an outstanding job in bringing the complicated character of Bloody Mary to life. While she provided a healthy dose of comedic relief, her ability to showcase Mary’s sinister side was captivating.
A newcomer to Stages St. Louis, Mark Diconzo made a splash with his portrayal of Luther Billis. Highlighting all of the character’s flaws and strengths, Diconzo kept the audience in stitches with his physical comedy and snarky delivery.
Rounding out this impressive cast of main characters, Matthew Hydzik was the quintessential heartthrob of the show. In addition to his dashing good looks, Hydzik raised the bar of this production with his remarkable vocal delivery and his commitment to character.
While the leads of this show were all excellent, the rest of the ensemble (too many to name here) did an equally remarkable job of rounding out the cast. This is one of the reasons Stages St. Louis produces such high quality shows: they have that ability to cast the right people in the right roles no matter how large or small.
The score to South Pacific is yet another outstanding element of this production. With such legendary songs as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothing Like A Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy,” and “Younger Than Springtime,” South Pacific is a music lover’s paradise.
James Wolk’s brilliant set design is a highlight of the production. His attention to detail was exquisite as his sets transported me to the tropics. Everything from his backdrop of azure blue water to the French plantation, to the working shower—in which Nellie actually washed her hair—were all superb.
The only technical aspect of the production that was in question was (a few of) Garth Dunbar’s costume designs. Having served in the military, I was never issued fatigues with a plunging neckline that hugged my rippling muscles. Lt. Cable was the sexiest malaria patient in existence. Additionally, while the sex appeal by all the shirtless men was alluring, that amount of skin would never be allowed in a war zone.
Despite that slight oversight, this production of South Pacific is a wonderful way to close out Stages’ season. With a run-time of just over 2 two-and-a-half hours, don’t miss the boat for this exceptional production of a time-honored classic. So to answer your question Bloody Mary, “Yes, I like! I like!” | Jim Ryan
South Pacific plays the Robert G. Reim Theatre through October 8th. For show times and ticket prices, please visit StagesStLouis.org. Never miss an article! Follow me on Twitter @TheJimRyan.