Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: Musical Theatre West’s South Pacific at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, California


I have been a season subscriber to Musical Theatre West for a few years, and have almost always been pleased with their offerings. So, I was thrilled when I saw that South Pacific (one of my favorite musicals) was on the schedule for the 2014-2015 season. I saw it this past weekend as was not disappointed!

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking. And only two bathrooms...

South Pacific is one of the heavy hitters in the musical world, and the original 1949 stage show was based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Tales of the South Pacific.” The original show won 10 Tony awards and spawned the incredible successful 1958 movie of the same name starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi. Undeniably this musical is so awesome thanks to the music of Richard Rodger and lyrics from Oscar Hammerstein II.

In case you have been hidden under a rock for the past 65 years, the plot is straight out of World War II with a cast of rowdy Seabees, hot nurses, harried officers, stereotypical natives, and rich expatriates. There are themes of love, racial tension, and death, and they all come together in a wonder fashion. The musical was a head of its time, and the racial themes must have been controversial at the time, though no less pertinent today.

South Pacific has such a long history and loyal following that effectively producing it is no small chore. Musical Theatre West rose to the challenge, and put all of the pieces together in a convincing manner thanks to the able direction and choreography of Joe Langworth.

Visually, the sets were good enough, with a just few too many elements taken care of by canvas, but Paul Black’s lighting was fantastic. The costumes were mostly period correct (I’m not too sure if they wore bikinis in WWII), and it is not too hard to come up with old military uniforms.

The sound was very good. There was a 28-piece orchestra (very big for a MTW production) under the supervision of musical director Dennis Castellano. Unfortunately the musicians were uncredited in the program, and I have no idea if they were union or not. The sound engineering was better than usual with no glaring errors other than the ear-splitting volume of Bloody Mary and too much reverb on the quieter numbers.

So, the basic foundation was solid, and though this is a well-written show its success depends on the cast, and the performers (mostly equity) all delivered solid performances. Alessa Neeck earned the role of Nellie Forbush and her voice was beautiful but her timing was off right from the start. Her love interest, Emile De Beque, was played by Christopher Carl who has voice galore, and who has been performing this role for years in various venues. .

The the other set of lovers, Lietenant Cable and Liat, were portrayed by Patrick Cummings and Cailan Rose. Cummings has a strong stage presence and looks fabulous with his shirt off, and Rose had the grace that was needed to play a character with almost no lines. Jodi Kimuar did a respectable job with Bloody Mary, though the racial stereotype of the character makes me cringe every time I see the show. My favorite character was Spencer Rowe’s Luther Billis, as there is nothing funnier than a macho guy in drag!

The ensemble turned in a solid performance, and they were very good dancers, and they made good use of Langworth’s choreography. Though I have seen this show many times, I had not noticed that aside from a few major numbers, the chorus has relatively little vocal work.

All of this came together well for very solid performance. Musical Theatre West has outdone itself and South Pacific is a classic show with fine production values and a good cast, and a little something for everyone. If you have the chance you should get out and see it before it is gone, but leave the little kids at home with a sitter. This is a long show and they will be squirming in their seats a long time before the final curtain falls (it clocks in at almost 3 hours), not to mention a few adult themes that you will have to awkwardly explain to on the drive home.

If you want to see it you had better hurry as South Pacific is closing on March 1. There are still a few tickets left, so grab them while you can. And, be sure to check out tickets for the last two shows of this season: Les Miserables and Singin’ in the Rain. Also, now is the time to start thinking about next years season, which will include My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and a surprise, which has not been announced but I think you will like this very recent musical. You can’t beat the value!


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