Wednesday, March 31, 2010

South Pacific at the Walton Arts Center

This week, the Walton Arts Center brought the touring company of South Pacific to Northwest Arkansas. If you don't have tickets, snatch some up today as they are close to sold out. (Even if you are told they are sold out, be sure to keep checking back with the box office as subscribers can return their tickets up until 24 hours before show time...the ones that get returned are usually REALLY GOOD seats! Be persistent!!)

As I mentioned, I won a contest to review the show as a part of an initiative to get local bloggers blogging about WAC events. As a winner, I not only recieved tickets to the show, but also a pass to meet and greet the some cast members in the show.

I had the opportunity to meet (L-R) CJ Palma (who played Jerome), Jodi Kimura (Bloody Mary's Asst.), Christina Carerra (Ngana), Alexis G.B. Holt (Bloody Mary's Asst.), Sumie Maeda (Liat), and Peter Rini (Cmdr. William Harbison). They were all very friendly, especially Peter with whom I had the most opportunity to talk.

Now...onto the show.

South Pacific was written by the team of Rogers and Hammerstein -- musical greats also responsible for such hits as Oklahoma and Sound of Music -- in 1950. The musical is based on a James Michener's series of short stories about men at war in the WWII South Pacific theatre. Although nay-sayers were initially skeptical about how this could possibly turned into a musical, Rogers and Hammerstein successfully integrate three stories from the book: the love story of Emile de Beque and ensign Nellie Forbush -- a French planter who moved to the South Pacific and a Navy nurse; the story of Bloody Mary, a native Tonkanese woman who sells grass skirts and other island goods to the GIs on an island in the South Pacific; and the story Luther Billis -- a Dennis the Menace type soldier -- and his antics. Rogers and Hammerstein were so successful, in fact, that they were nominated for and won 10 Tony Awards (like the Oscars of the theatre world) when it debuted. It remains the only musical where all four of the acting awards were won by cast members of the same musical. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for its progressive stand against racism.

The show is decidedly from the "old school" of musicals, having many qualities you don't see much in contemporary musicals. My favorite two "old school" qualities from the musical were the wonderful Overture and Entr'acte (the music at the beginning of the show, and immediately prior to Act II), and the huge ensemble. Whereas many contemporary musicals have a very small cast (less than 10), South Pacific has a ginormous cast of 34 talented performers. Because of the increased production costs, most producers simply won't get behind such big productions because of the financial risk involved. Thankfully, Lincoln Center did and we are most fortunate to have this production come to Northwest Arkansas.

This staging of South Pacific was born of the Lincoln Center revivial. This revival received rave reviews from the media and 8 Tony awards. It has become the longest-running Rogers and Hammerstein revival in history, and will close after 1000 performances this August. After seeing the show, I can see why it has run for so long to sold-out crowds.

Ironically, the stars of the shows aren't the stars. In fact, Carmen Cusack as Nellie and Rod Gillfry as Emile lack chemistry. They're both good, but neither are great. Similarly, I found Anderson Davis' performance as Lt. Joe Cable lacking -- his voice was not great, but he was certainly easy on the eyes!!

Despite three of the principal characters' performances being less than I would have expected, I found that the details of the production was where the show shined. The stars of the show are the technical aspects and the details. I loved the lighting. It really brought depth to the set and enhanced the story telling. The direction was stellar (and I'm not usually one to notice such things), and really brought heart to the production that -- if not treated carefully -- would seem dated and out of touch. The period costumes were great. The positives in the performance far outweighed the negatives. For a theatre enthusiast who has never acted or teched a show to notice such details, they had to be really really top notch. And they were.

My top shoutout, though, has to go to the male ensemble. They were great! It's not uncommon for a chorus to fade into the background, but this ensemble didn't. Each character seemed to have its own personality and they came together to give a tour de force performance. "There is Nothing Like a Dame" was my favorite part of the whole show. The male ensemble totally knocked it out of the park.

This whole performance was terrific. The Rogers and Hammerstein organization are fiercely protective of their shows, but they should really be proud of this one. Overall, I give South Pacific a 4/5 (I am a tough grader too -- remember, I try not to just give a way the standing O). The show is enjoyable, will make you think a little, and will definitely have you leave the theatre humming. It is a great night of theatre. You won't be disappointed! Run, don't walk, to get tickets either in Fayetteville or when it comes to a performing arts venue near you.

FTC requires me to let you know that I was given free tickets to this event in exchange for a review. However, my review is my honest opinion - I swear!

PS This is a part of a contest. The blog review with the most "Like" votes on the facebook page will win. To help me out, please "Like" the link to my post that can be found here.

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