From the moment Keeton Theatre’s new music director, Noah Rice and the house band begin the overture of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, thanks to the familiarity of so many of the show’s tunes, sold-out audiences have been easily swept away during the show’s run. As the show draws to a close this weekend, the company faces another sold-out Friday performance with only a few tickets remaining for closing night, Saturday, October 28.
Based on author James A. Michener’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning anthology of stories, Tales of the South Pacific, the musical debuted on Broadway just two years after the book’s publication, courtesy the dynamic composer and lyricist team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein who had already had huge success on Broadway and in Hollywood with Oklahoma, Carousel and the film score for 1945’s State Fair musical film adaptation.
Telling the tale of an American nurse stationed in the South Pacific who falls in love with an expatriate Frenchman with a storied past, who’s living in the South Pacific raising his mixed-race children during World War II, South Pacific not only touches on social issues still prevalent today like racism, but also the ravages of war, the sacrifices our military make and the constant struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy in such times.
Keeton’s South Pacific director Jeffrey Ellis—whose recent directorial credits include The Miss Firecracker Contest, My Fair Lady, Cabaret and more—once again pays perfect homage to the well-known film adaptation by early drawing the audiences’ attention from large all-in group numbers to more intimate moments between his lead actors with ease and precision. Keeping the audience thoroughly engaged all the while.
Making her Keeton Theatre debut is Lindsay Terrizzi Hess as Nellie Forbush. She’s wonderfully cast as the love-stuck, but no-nonsense nurse. Her pitch-perfect soprano voice lends itself perfectly to some of the show’s most beloved tunes, including A Cockeyed Optimist, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair and I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy.
As for Nellie’s love interest, Emile DeBeque is brought to life by Chris Cavin. Having appeared in their production of My Fair Lady and last year’s in Annie Get Your Gun, it’s nice to have him back on the stage at the Keeton. His rich baritone take on Some Enchanted Evening, the show’s most beautiful ballad, ensures the audience will experience just that.
Cast as DeBeque’s children are Oliva Harper and Hayden Williams. Their Dites Moi simply charming. Anyone who knows director Ellis knows he like to pretend he’s a bit of a curmudgeon in his real life, but after seeing the sweet and impressive performances he got from these two young actors, something tells me he’s just an ole softie. While the children’s mixed-race background has always been a bit controversial for a play first produced in the 1940s, the roles of the children are in truth really little more than background for the adult actors. That said, these two charmers make the most of their limited time on stage and leave the audience eager to see where their young careers take them.
Of course you can’t have a show about a military outpost without a large cast portraying said military personnel. Ellis has fill the ranks with faces old and new to The Keeton, among them: Brandon Day, Matt Stapleton, Randell Bowers, Earl Landree, Craig Hardline, Drew Dunlop, AJ Harris, Trevor Golter, Kim Leslie, Tiffany Roberts Day, Mara Bloomfield Smotherman, Stephanie Hale Williams, Stella London, Elisabeth Sisler and Michaela Zip.
Which reminds me, during There Is Nothing Like A Dame, when the men look adoring at photos of pin-up girls of the day including Betty Grable, you gotta love Ellis’ wink to certain men in the military when Bowers eyes a picture of one Clark Gable. Leave it to Ellis to subtly, but effectively bring yet another layer to the show’s underlying theme of prejudice and acceptance.
As is true with most Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, the romance is also peppered nicely with a few laughs. To that end, The Keeton’s South Pacific has enlisted Brooke Leigh Davis as Bloody Mary and Brian Best as Luther Billis.
Bloody Mary marks Davis’ fourth production at The Keeton. Davis is wickedly funny as Bloody Mary, an island woman who sees the war and the influx of military personnel as a perfect business opportunity. When I spoke with Davis for my recent Rapid Fire 20 Q with the cast, I mentioned that in previous local productions over the years, Bloody Mary is often played strictly for laughs, save the hauntingly beautiful Bali Hai. To her credit, and that of her director, Davis’ Bloody Mary is presented as a fully realized, wise woman who plays just dumb enough for to gain the soldiers’ trust. This also allows her to attempt a personal goal, to introduce her daughter to one of the men in hopes of a marriage proposal. In the capable hands of Davis, Bloody Mary’s Happy Talk, in which she encourages the hopeful young couple to communicate about their shared dreams. Lyrics “You got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true” are a simplistic, but universally understood commonality.
Having seen Brian Best in a number of comedic roles over the years, I’ve become a fan of his usual scene-stealing in-your-face approach. As Billis, he does not disappoint. Not being the lead actor, or even the second lead, Best still makes the most of his role. As the wise-crackin, lady-lovin’ resident laundry attendant and always scheming small time entrepreneur, Best knocks it out of the park while showcasing his comedic timing and undeniably infectious stage presence with songs like There Is Nothing Like A Dame and Honey Bun….those coconuts though.
Speaking of the second lead, Austin Jeffrey Smith is perfectly cast at Lt. Joe Cable, a fresh-faced recent addition to the war. Tasked with two of my personal favorite songs, Younger Than Springtime and You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, it’s easy to see why Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat would fall for the young Lieutenant.
In the role of Liat, is Shelby Jones. While Liat has no lines in the show—the character doesn’t speak English—she’s tasked with three very emotional scenes. In the first she meets and is immediately smitten by Lt. Cable, in the second, he rejects her mother’s marriage plot and in the third, she learns of his death in action. (Is it really a spoiler alert when you’re taking about a musical that’s been around for seventy years?) To that end, Jones turns in an expressively emotional performance with just a look or two. The romantic scene between Liat and Cable made all the more romantic thanks to some subtle G-rated lighting techniques from the show’s lighting director, Stella London and the show’s set designer, Jim Manning.
The Keeton Theatre’s South Pacific wraps its run with show through Saturday, October 28. CLICK HERE for tickets or for more information. Up next for The Keeton they’re continue their special one-night-only Larry Keeton Live series with a performance by Markey Blue on Saturday, November 4 at 7:30 p.m. Then its holiday time at The Keeton with Jeffrey Ellis returning as director of The Marvelous Wonderettes-Winter Wonderettes on stage with select performances from Thursday, November 30 through Saturday, December 16. After the new year, The Keeton’s 2017/2018 season continues with West Side Story February 15-March 3; 9 to 5 April 12-28 and Annie June 14-30. To keep up with The Larry Keeton Theatre, visit their website or follow them on Facebook.
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