Despite the reputation of being a Pulitzer-Prize winning literary giant, author James Michener’s collection of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific, was largely unknown and may have remained that way had it not been for composer Richard Rodgers and his bad back.
With nothing else to do other than rest and stare at the ceiling, Rodgers read a couple of the stories and was suddenly inspired. Most musical collaborations with his partner, Oscar Hammerstein ll were based on unknown material later made famous only because of the large scale musicals upon which they were based, and so it was with South Pacific. Loosely based on three of Michener’s tales, with character elements lifted from several of the other stories, writer Hammerstein ll, with considerable though controversially unpaid help from director Joshua Logan, crafted a tale of love, fear, heroism and racial intolerance, all set to a dreamy backdrop of palm trees, blue skies and the lapping waves of the Pacific Ocean, while the dangers of World War ll raged on islands nearby.
That setting is nicely captured on the stage of Spotlight Youth Theatre, Peoria where the epic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is now performing until November 6. Set against designer Bobby Sample’s detailed painted backdrop of a Pacific island beach – including at one point a particularly effective full moon; it’s reflection shimmering surprisingly realistically on the ocean’s wavy surface – it’s not altogether difficult to understand why SYT would tackle such an adult project arguably not altogether suited to a youth theatre presentation. As proven in the past with such audacious productions like The Laramie Project, which practically invites controversy, director Kenny Grossman is hardly one to shy away from a challenge, and for that reason alone he should be congratulated. But like the 1949 original beset with its collaborative issues, this new SYT production has some issues of its own.
To its credit. with professional aspirations often achieved, the entire SYT ensemble have tackled this difficult production with an energy not always seen on a professional stage. Indeed, when looking back to a national touring production of the early nineties with the late Robert Goulet as its headliner, when compared to the passion exhibited by this hard-working youthful Peoria cast, those touring professionals of two decades ago appeared as though they were simply going through the motions. Yet, the overall impression left after Sunday’s performance of South Pacific by SYT is this: there’s still work to be done.
In fairness, it should be noted that director Grossman suffered unfortunate and severe personal injuries that would have rendered most to take at least the rest of the month off from work while trying to adapt to crutches, but instead, after missing just a short rehearsal time, he insisted on returning back to the theatre; an admiral move to say the least. Plus, with a cast already in place and much work already completed, the old adage of the show must go on became a determined mantra, and the show has, indeed, gone on. But maybe it opened a week too early.
Much of the comedy from the men of the navy’s Construction Battalion, the CB’s, is often in danger of being over-played with over-the-top, broad gestures, while elements of confrontational drama are played too angrily with unnecessary raised voices, even shouting, when all that’s required is a firm response. Even a light-hearted moment when a navy officer, amused that he’s secretly acquired a tropical grass skirt, turns what should be a subtle expression of mirth into something maniacal. Taking extra time to rein in these elements and tone down the exaggeration would help enormously, particularly when it’s clearly evident that this assembled, talented cast have the capabilities of doing so.
Leading the ensemble and holding the production together is Tiana Marks, who with her soft, southern accent from small town Arkansas makes a striking Nellie Forbush. From the moment she begins A Cockeyed Optimist in the opening scene it’s obvious that with both her singing and acting talent, Tiana is right for the role. So, too is Vinny Pugliese as young marine officer Lt. Cable, further developing what should be a promising career after displaying a natural talent in SYT’s outstanding production of Spring Awakening, and more recently in the musical drama Next to Normal on the Phoenix stage with Nearly Naked Theatre. Their characters are the most rounded and find themselves faced with the show’s biggest emotional conflict. Hammerstein’s script intentionally used the racial theme of prejudice more as a backdrop, not a central plot, and in the hands of lesser talents in some productions, this element might have all but dissolved, but both Marks and Pugliese make it work. One will overcome what they know in their heart and mind is wrong, while the other will become a victim of the war before the chance to come to terms with the issue is presented.
Special mention to Issie Ocampo as Bloody Mary whose rendition of Bali Ha’i was nothing short of haunting, and even though Steven Enriquez as Emile De Becque was plagued by some unfortunate mic issues in the first half, the problem was resolved in the second where his singing voice came through loud and clear.
With great and even powerful singing support from both the men and women during the ensemble numbers such as There is Nothin’ Like A Dame from the sailors and I’m Gonna Wash That Man from the nurses, the songs and choreography under Mark and Lynzee 4man’s direction are what elevate the show. SYT’s presentation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic deserves local audience support, but while the musical moments remain fine, at this early stage of its run, it needs production tightening on the drama in order to be considered good.
Pictures courtesy of Memory Layne Photography
For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Spotlight Youth Theatre website