As I’ve written previously, South Pacific is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, so I was looking forward to the Walnut Street Theatre‘s current production.
I like sitting front row center when possible, but the ticket I bought was for the far right seat, which had a partially obstructed view because of the palm tree on the stage and some other scenery. I’ve grown to accept that modern audiences generally don’t stop their gabbing for the overture, but I wasn’t prepared for the latecomers who jostled their way in front of me in search of their seats or the obnoxious couple to my left who kept fiddling with their phones, shining them on their programs to read and incidentally into my eyes. And said obnoxious couple were roughly my age, so they should have known better. Plus I was sitting right next to the over-amplified speaker so the sound was quite unpleasantly loud. And when the show began, I realized that with my obstructed view seat, I could only see perhaps 50% of the action on stage.
So I decided I’d leave at intermission.
But then something happened. Kate Fahrner as Nellie Forbush and Paul Schoeffler as Emile de Becque launched into my favorite song of the score, “Twin Soliloquies”, and I had an inkling of how powerful a spell this show can cast on me.
The spell continued when the men’s ensemble broke into my favorite song of the show, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”, performing a pitch-perfect rendition of that rousing number.
Lori Tann Chinn as Bloody Mary gave a very broad interpretation of that role, quite different from Juanita Hall’s, but I loved the way she handled my two favorite numbers from the score, “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk”. While we’re on the subject of “Bali Ha’i”, I thought the staging of that number was the director’s only major misfire. Mary begins her seduction of “Lootellin” Cable with that song and her focus should be on him and him alone; everyone else on stage should disappear from the audience’s attention. Instead, the director had the stage brightly lit and although Mary began singing directly to Cable, after a while she started roaming the stage and engaging with the various Seabees. That was just wrong. Her only interest is in Cable.
Nellie and the Nurses gave an outstanding performance of my absolute favorite hit song from the show, “A Wonderful Guy”, though sadly I missed most of the stage business and choreography because of the aforementioned obstructed view. But with its very long verse setting up Nellie’s conflicted feelings and need to justify her decisions to her friends, followed by one of the most lilting and exhilarating waltz tunes that Rodgers or anyone ever penned, oh, what a song!
By the time Act I ended all thoughts of leaving had long since evaporated.
Ben Michael as Lt. Joseph Cable got to perform my favorite social protest number in the show, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, and Schoeffler’s performance of “This Nearly Was Mine” just might turn that into my favorite song from the score.
Overall the cast was fine, even great at times, the orchestra played wonderfully, and the staging, what I could see of it and other than the “Bali Ha’i” number, was terrific.
In short, after a rocky start it turned into an enchanted afternoon after all.
UPDATE 2016-10-23: I went to see it again this afternoon at what was its final performance. This time from the mezzanine where I could see about 95% of the action. And there was a lot to see; I had missed more than I expected. My verdict still stands. I’d add “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” to my list of director misfires; it was just a little bit too well staged. But overall, I liked what I saw.
One other criticism: they cut a bit of Emile’s music right after “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, but that music does appear in the underscoring a little while later. Which is why I was confused about whether it was included or not.