[DC Metro Theatre Arts] Review: ‘South Pacific’ at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts
By Julia L. Exline
July 30, 2019
Riverside Center for the Performing Arts presents Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. The winner of multiple Tony awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, South Pacific continues to charm audiences seventy years after its debut. Penny Ayn Maas directs and choreographs a powerhouse cast for this beloved production.
Scenic designer Frank Foster sets the backdrop as a beautiful island in the South Pacific, where the American Navy is stationed during WWII. Since nurses are off-limits to enlisted men, female companionship on the island is scarce; a fact that the sailors lament about in the lively number “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.” However, the men do enjoy playful banter with a civilian woman – an older vendor nicknamed “Bloody Mary” (Kadejah Oné), who has a knack for convincing them that they need to purchase – of all things – her handmade grass skirts. She also tries to lure them to an off-limits island in the hypnotizing number, “Bali Ha’i.”
One of the nurses, Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kate Marshall), finds herself caught up in a whirlwind romance with an older French plantation owner after meeting him at a dance. While the two barely know each other, the attraction is deep, which her suitor Emile de Becque (Branch Fields) sings about in “Some Enchanted Evening” (if you attend this show for only one thing, it’ll be Fields’ dazzling vocals). Meanwhile, U.S. Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Joey Birchler) arrives on the island, having been assigned a dangerous spy mission. Through circumstance, he meets Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat (Sally Roehl) and falls in love with her despite the fact that they do not speak the same language.
It is these two romances that the story revolves around, and while both are passionate, they are also both tainted by innate racism and prejudice, which Cable sings about in the number, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” This was a controversial song seventy years ago, as many people felt that this semi-taboo subject had no business being explored onstage. Rodgers and Hammerstein remained unapologetic for their provocative choice, and the topic demanded focus and consideration from its audience. This was a bit of a gamble 70 years ago, and while our society has certainly made strides since then, the issue (unfortunately) remains relevant to this day. Though uncomfortable, there are still vital conversations that need to be had.
The crowning glory of this production is its score. Many of the songs have gone on to stand on steady legs outside of the show, becoming popular standards that you’ll likely recognize even if you’ve never seen South Pacific. Most notable is Nellie’s catchy “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair.” Music director Angela Donadio conducts a live orchestra offstage, and if the musicians weren’t clearly visible by the audience, you could be easily fooled into thinking that you’re listening to a professional soundtrack.
The actors all do great jobs with their roles, though there were a couple of scene stealers; Alan Hoffman gets a lot of laughs as Luther Billis, a scheming (if dimwitted) petty officer, and Robert John Biedermann gets a lot of memorable zingers as Captain George Brackett. South Pacific is a show that is collectively near and dear to people of a certain age (particularly those who served in the armed forces themselves), and who find comfort and nostalgia in this story. It also has a remarkable song-and-dance score that has stood the test of time, and remains a thrilling treat to today’s younger audience. This is a classic that will likely be around forever, and as a proud American, I find myself a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t experienced it sooner.
Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ South Pacific has some of the best vocalists in our area singing some of America’s favorite show tunes. It’s a can’t-miss for avid fans of musical theater!
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Michael Jarett, Lighting Design; Billy Timms, Sound Design; Kyna Chilcot, Costume Design; Bridgid K. Burge, Properties Master and Set Dresser