If you know Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” only as a movie, then, boy, does Music Theatre Wichita have a pleasant surprise for you.
Director Wayne Bryan and his remarkable cast have not just dusted off and freshened up one of the classic warhorses of Broadway theater, they have polished it to a glossy and enduring sheen.
Based on the rewrite from the 2008 revival that brought the show back to Broadway for the first time in nearly 60 years, the story about impressionable young Americans discovering a diverse new world outside their traditions and comfort zone because of World War II restores some of the controversial elements of bigotry and hypocrisy that were toned down for original, pre-civil-rights audiences.
Now, with the resurrection of the single word “colored” and ensuing situations it unleashes, the elephant in the room over American society’s view (at that time, anyway) of interracial relationships is clear. The story achieves more depth and significance and is more moving.
The glorious music, from the lush “Some Enchanted Evening” to the boisterous “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” to the hauntingly lovely “Bali Ha’i,” is given loving and spirited treatment by music director Thomas W. Douglas and his 27-piece orchestra – the largest this season. The beautiful, versatile, uncluttered set, borrowed from the national tour, shifts from plantation house veranda to palm-lined beach to military war room with the silent shifting of graceful bamboo shades, enhanced by evocative lighting by David Neville. His “Bali Ha’i” sunset vista is thrilling.
Erin Mackey is pert and funny as naive Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, a self-proclaimed Little Rock “hick” who becomes infatuated with a worldly middle-aged French planter with a mysterious past on a small South Pacific island. Mackey has a clear, crisp soprano that is engaging and approachable for jaunty tunes like “Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” and utterly delightful in “(I’m in Love With) A Wonderful Guy.”
Mike McGowan as the planter Emile de Becque has a resonant baritone with smooth, clear high notes for the end of “Some Enchanted Evening” (“Once you have found her, never let her go”) that can give you goosebumps.
Mackey and McGowan, New York-based actors who played these same roles recently opposite each other, have achieved a comfortable, believable chemistry. They are a sexier, less stiff, more fun-loving couple than portrayed in the movie.
Another New York-based actor, Joanne Javien, makes a smaller, scrappier, actually prettier Bloody Mary than you’ve seen before. Make no mistake, Mary is still a force of nature as the blunt, plain-spoken horse trader and matchmaker on the island who always has a deal to make. But Javien isn’t a joke or stereotype. She gives Mary emotional depth.
Ryan Vasquez is a handsome presence with a strong, romantic voice for “Younger Than Springtime” as the young Lt. Joe Cable, a privileged and spoiled Philadelphia guy who falls for Bloody Mary’s beautiful daughter, Liat (Shea Renne). He also gives emotional pow to the angry and pivotal “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” about discrimination as he is forced to face his own hypocrisy about his forbidden love.
While Bloody Mary provides some comic relief, most of it comes from J. Bailey Burcham as Seabee Luther Billis, who runs a black – well, maybe sort of gray – market to provide goods and services not available through “official” channels. Burcham has a face made for double takes and a fearlessness to use his roly-poly body for laughs, particularly in drag.
Choreographer Billy Sprague Jr. crafts some big, boisterous, flexing moments for the Seabees and nurses rather than too-ordered dance lines. But he crafts one brilliantly haunting moment as the service personnel prepare to depart the island where they have become a close-knit family. In uniform and in precise lockstep, the men and women march in merging patterns, beginning with a slow, hesitation step and building to a regular stride as they leave the stage.
One added – and elegantly literary – touch is both a prologue and epilogue, using typed words on a curtain from James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Tales of the South Pacific,” upon which the Tony Award-winning musical is based: “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific …” greets you as you enter the theater. Director Bryan and his crew scrupulously make sure that we don’t miss a thing Michener wanted us to know.