By Patrick B. McGuigan
Christopher Carl as Emile de Becque and Tiffan Borelli as Nellie Forbush bring believable vunerability to “South Pacific,” the award-winning musical based on James Michener’s novel.
The CityRep/Oklahoma City University joint production continues through Sunday.
These performers shine bright, yet unselfishly, as they share the stage, including in their tender Act I closer, “This is How It Feels.”
Their May-December romance is tender and feels authenic, taking each to places of which they never dreamed, in an exotic locale and a time of rending conflict.
Nellie’s friendship with Seaman Luther Billis (Benjamin Carmenzuli) is a humorous highlight the story, as he fawns and bestows upon her gifts, one after another, of his oddly engineered creations. Their collaboration in the “Thanksgiving Folliles” of Act II is a Broadway-worthy classic.
Anna Bookout, as Nellie’s nurse pal, is believable in an essential backing part, with dialogue that bridges some of the interactions among the leading characters.
Linda Leonard is a diminutive show-stopper as Bloody Mary, the entrepreneur of the island where Nellie and her U.S. Navy colleagues (male and female) pass a peaceful interlude.
Michael Gibbons as Captain Brackett and Steve Emerson as Commander Harbison are “by-the-rules” military men, patriots doing their best in a war that is just, but full of all the moral ambiguity of even that good cause.
The two veteran performers collaborate in smart dialogue that drives the narrative setting all the romance and humor in the setting of terrible conflict. Together, the two men aptly portray the kind of leaders who won the war for America.
Emerson and Carmenzuli also pair well portraying eternal tension marking relations between enlisted and career servicemen.
Michael Martin gives a fine, fully solid singing and acting performance as Stewpot, the Navy unit’s cook. He even merits center stage in a few of the ensemble numbers.
Also appealing is Katelyn Baron as Mary’s assistant – and absolutely adorable are the quartet of youngsters taking turns as Emile’s children from a previous relationship: Emma Moad Kollie, Katie Mei Markmiller, Hallie Hunt and Brayden QB Tran. Asante Gunewardena is Emile’s reliable and steady manservant, Henri.
At Thursday’s performance, Nathan Goodrich was superb as Lt. Joseph Cable, the charismatic youthful Marine willing to risk his life to strike at the still-ascendant Japanese empire that seemed to be swallowing the Pacific region after the fall of the Philippines in 1942.
Cable’s introduction to lovely Tonkonese girl Liat (Hannah Burroughs), Mary’s daughter, initially seems a bit abrupt, yet their relationship soon became compelling on-stage. Goodrich knocks out of the theatrical ballpark the powerful love ballad he sings to Burroughs’ Liat, “Younger Than Springtime.” Passion and the semi-madness of young love is captured in their moments together on stage.
Cable’s unwillingness to devote himself fully to a relationship with the girl is one of the powerful pivot points of the story. He knows his prejudice against the darker skinned – echoed in Nellie’s character, as well – is wrong, but for a time cannot rise above his raising.
Goodrich delivers, in an emotional scene with Carl, the song that captures the story’s anthem against the ignorance of racist bigotry, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
This is theatrical story-telling with the highest possible purpose, uplifting the audience without platitudes or simplistic nostrums. The entire second act, including Goodrich’s part in it, is among the best times in local live theatre of recent memory – and so is the first act. (Thursday, Sean Burroughs had a fine turn as heroic pilot Buzz Adams. He is alternating the Cable role with Goodrich, the latter taking his turn as Adams.)
For all its theatrical spectacle and the on-stage appeal of muscular lads and beautiful maidens, “South Pacific” is a realistic story set in the midst of world war. Emile and Joe join forces in a noble and dangerous mission to undermine the Japanese Navy’s effectiveness, prelude to the story’s uplifting and contextually patriotic ending.
The story is laced with some of the finest lyrics and tunes ever to come to modern stages, including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Bali Ha’I,” “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair,” “In love with a wonderful guy,” and “Happy Talk.” And of course, the magnificent ensemble numbers “Honey Bun” and “There is nothing like a dame.”
Rarely has love and loss been more beautifully captured than in Emile’s “This nearly was mine,” at mid-point of Act II.
The joint production between CityRep and the Wanda Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University is a powerful and often poignant evening of theatre, full of emotion, humor, movement and relevance.
All hail to director Len Pfluger and his collaborators. Everything comes together – costumes (yes, Billis wears the coconuts of honored memory), lighting and sound are wondrous.
This show is highly recommended.
With a full orchestra, 38 of OCU’s finest musicians under Jan McDaniel, and a total of 40 performers – equity actor’s union professionals in most of the lead roles and budding young student stars in the supporting cast (absolutely the equivalent of AAA ball players aspiring to play in the big time).
South Pacific continues Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., at Kirkpatrick Auditorium, 2501 N. Blackwelder on the Oklahoma City University campus. Tickets go on sale about an hour before show time. Don’t miss this outstanding evening of theatre.