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By John Quinn
Encore Musical Theatre
3126 Broad St., Dexter
June 4-July 3; check website for performance times
The “book musical” is as thoroughly American as baseball and apple pie. Other genres, notably operetta, incorporate song and dance into a production, but in a book musical they are not there as commentary or ornamentation. Song and dance are integrated with the story and drive the narration as powerfully as the written word. Arguably one of the best loved and most successful achievement in the field is Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II’s “South Pacific.” So let’s move over to the “score” board and recap the highlights of The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production.
Hit: the book, by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. Working from James A. Michener’s epic collection of short stories, the Pulitzer Prize winning “Tales of the South Pacific,” the playwrights crafted a story so fundamental to the human condition it’s neither outdated nor irrelevant. It’s been 66 years since its Broadway debut, yet “South Pacific” remains, you should excuse the expression, “younger than springtime.”
The plot concerns the romance between Nellie Forbush (Marlene Inman), an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II, and a middle-aged emigre with a past, French plantation owner Emile De Becque (Stephen West). Running parallel is the love affair between U.S. Lt. Joseph Cable (Sebastian Gerstner) and a fragile Tonkinese girl, Liat (Teola Lutsker). Cable is unaware his introduction to Liat is part of Bloody Mary’s (Gayle Martin) most devious financial deal ever. Mary is Liat’s mother, and she is scheming to find a Western husband for her child.
All is not heavenly, though, in paradise. Little Rock-born Nellie and Philadelphia Main Liner Joe suffer from the same blind spot; a bigotry toward “The Other” – anybody not like “us.” Nellie for a part of the story rejects Emile because his multi-racial children are the result of Emile’s marriage to a Polynesian woman; Cable won’t follow his love of Liat, because he knows he cannot take Liat home with him to “the city of brotherly love.” Prejudice and the heartache it causes is a major theme of “South Pacific.”
More hits? “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Happy Talk,” “Younger Than Springtime” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.” Case closed.
Foul right off the bat: musical direction and sound engineering. No one expects a theater company to hire a Broadway-sized orchestra – these days, not even Broadway can afford that. R. MacKenzie Lewis has four live musicians, as well as some recorded accompaniment. But the results needn’t sound as strange as it is here. The music is tinny; the strings and reeds are reduced to a sour whine. But is this the orchestration, or the result of sound engineering? It sure sounds like the pre-recorded music has been put through a processor and severely compressed to a very unpleasant end.
All star: Marlene Inman. Her Nellie is a bright, no-nonsense professional swept off her feet and into the arms of a charismatic lover. Inman’s warmth and vocals anchor the show and beautifully balances the woman and internal child in Nellie.
All star: Matthew Brennan. The always scheming, profit-driven Luther Billis is the comic foil for Bloody Mary’s similar tastes in trade. Lanky Brennan paired with petit Gayle Martin is a visual delight.
All star: Gayle E. Martin. There is no trace of stereotype in her performance. It’s tough to describe it as “clean,” since Mary delights in picking up foul language from the Seabees. But Martin is entrusted with two iconic musical numbers; the ethereal “Bali-Ha’i” and “Happy Talk,” and simply knocks ’em out of the park.
“Bass” hit: Stephen West. Although his thunderous, operatic basso kind of overwhelms “Some Enchanted Evening,” his tender, emotional rendition of “This Nearly Was Mine” is a show-stopper.
A grand slam home run: the women’s chorus: Cassi Mikat, Luciana Piazza, Karina Stribley and Maika van Oosterhout. Backing Marlene Inman, singing pitch-perfect close harmony while dancing barefoot in period bathing suits, the four helped make “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” not only the most memorable number of the night, but perhaps of a whole season.
Unintentional walk: the talented Sebastian Gerstner as Lt. Cable. Cable is scripted to be not much more than a place holder, a second voice for a love duet. Fortunately, that ballad is “Younger than Springtime,” which Gerstner gloriously renders, albeit opening night he struggled just a little to find proper volume. Cable sticks around long enough to deliver “South Pacific’s” theme, wrapped up in his solo, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” before marching off to war and redemption.
Carla Milarch held the reins of this sprawling production. Some wise options have been taken in paring “South Pacific” down to size for the intimate Encore environment. Kudos all around. Daniel C. Walker rendered the bright, colorful island set. Sharon Larkey Urick designed costumes, and deserves recognition for dressing the nurses in perfect period splendor.