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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    Review: Goodspeed brings ‘South Pacific’ to East Haddam

    The number “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” in Goodspeed Musicals’ production of “South Pacific” (Diane Sobolewski)
    Joan Almedilla and Cameron Loyal in a scene from “South Pacific” at Goodspeed.
    Keven Quillon, second from left, plays Billis in Goodspeed Musicals’ “South Pacific.”
    Alex Humphreys and Cameron Loyal in “South Pacific.”
    Keven Quillon, who plays Billis, in the number “Honey Bun.”

    It was a long time coming.

    Goodspeed Musicals hadn’t staged the classic musical “South Pacific” in its six-decade history.

    Then it was scheduled. For 2020.

    The pandemic put the kibosh on any productions that year, and the show was postponed again in 2021.

    Finally, “South Pacific” has come to the Goodspeed stage this summer. And it’s a marvelous production, full of life, directed by Chay Yew.

    The material itself, of course, is superb. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “South Pacific” is powered by one of the richest scores in any musical, with songs including “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame,” “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.”

    And the show, which premiered in 1949, boasts a story that delves into meaty subjects — racism, war and bullying. The themes obviously still resonate in a significant way today.

    The musical’s heroine, Nellie, rejects her French beau when she discovers he had children with a Polynesian woman. And an American marine lieutenant named Cable leaves the Tonkinese woman he loves because he’s concerned about his family’s prejudice against her. Nellie and Cable both are self-aware enough that they talk about their reactions and realize, as Cable sings in one of the show’s famous songs, that “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” meaning that children aren’t born with hate; they are taught it.

    The genius of both “South Pacific’s” book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, and of this production, is in making the humor and drama, the lightness and darkness all feel of a piece — sort of like the real world.

    “South Pacific” is culled from James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” collection of short stories, and Rodgers and Hammerstein shaped it into a sweeping epic. A group of American military men and nurses are stationed at a Navy base on an idyllic South Pacific Island, as the men wait to head off to fight in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

    Super subs

    There must have been illnesses in the cast on the day I saw the show (June 29) because two of the lead characters — Nellie and Emile de Becque — were played by understudies. This resulted in several other actors shifting to different roles.

    Here’s the good news: If I hadn’t seen the list of replacements before the show, I never would have known.

    Hannah Jewel Kohn buzzed with sunny cheeriness as Nellie, the U.S. nurse stationed in the South Pacific. She embodied the smalltown gee-whiz-ness of the character without going overboard. Kohn’s voice was pure and lovely as she approached “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” with puckish enthusiasm, and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” with starry-eyed romanticism.

    Eric Briarley stepped into the role of de Becque, the French plantation owner who falls for Nellie. Briarley played him as fairly reserved but passionate when discussing the bullies of the world — one of whom he accidentally killed. (De Becque said that when he was 22, he thought the world hated bullies as much as he did.) And, of course, his de Becque let down his guard a bit when smitten by Nellie. Briarley’s operatic voice earned whoops and applause on “This Nearly Was Mine,” which built to sonorous notes.

    The start and the sets

    Things get off to a muted start. The opening scenes, of de Becque and his children and then of him with Nellie, feel a little static.

    But everything begins to crackle when we get tossed into the numbers “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” with the male ensemble members leaping and flipping and dancing as they sing the two buoyant tunes. (The choreography is by Parker Esse.)

    The sets, with scenic design by Alexander Dodge, will likely make you want to immediately book a trip to anywhere in the South Pacific. The blue of the water and sky are deep and jewel-toned, and they are framed by palm trees. When the plot shifts to the island of Bali Ha’i, the background consists of a wall of lush, three-dimensional foliage. That is gorgeous enough, but when the lighting shifts, the wall suddenly looks different, as if we are seeing it on an ominous night.

    Acting the part

    Yew cast a Black actor as Cable, which was an interesting — and, it turns out, a wise — choice. Cable falls for a young Tonkinese woman, and he speaks about racism — and sings about it, too, in “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” He decides he can’t marry her because of his family’s prejudices, a move that becomes more complex because Cable is Black. As Cable, Cameron Loyal proves himself a fine actor and singer.

    As Bloody Mary, a local woman who makes a living selling souvenirs to the American GIs on the South Pacific base, Joan Almedilla brings a savviness and considerable depth to the role. Bloody Mary is doing what she can to eke out the best existence she can for herself and her daughter. Almedilla’s version is knowing — and full of impish humor. The actress sings beautifully, particularly on “Bali Ha’i.”

    Alex Humphreys as Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat has to convey everything through her expressions to the audience, since Liat doesn’t speak English. Humphreys ably communicates the girl’s innocence and her love at first sight for Cable.

    The character of Seabee Luther Billis, meanwhile, is comic relief, and actor Keven Quillon masters the assignment. Every time he is onstage, you can happily anticipate something funny with this mischievous character who always has a scheme.

    In “Honey Bun,” Billis and Nellie each dress in drag, and Quillon shimmies his coconut bra and tosses around his long blonde wig, even losing the wig at one point (whether intentionally or not), with Kohn trying to keep on her flopping fake moustache, until finally just taking it off.

    Even with prop malfunctions, they keep the song — and the ebullient humor — going.

    If you go

    What: “South Pacific”

    Where: The Goodspeed, 6 Main St., East Haddam

    When: Through Aug. 11; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also 2 p.m. on select Thursdays, and 6:30 p.m. on select Sundays

    Tickets: Start at $30, prices subject to change based on availability

    Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org.

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