Many theatregoers have seen Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC, perhaps more than once. But you’ve never really seen it until you’ve seen the production at Haddon Township’s Ritz Theatre. This is SOUTH PACIFIC as it should be—as entertaining as ever, but gutsy, lusty, real. From the very beginning, while the overture is playing, we are reminded of a world at war as newsreel clips of World War II—which had ended only a few years before this show opened on Broadway—are flashed upon the background screen.
The first scene, however, is a peaceful one at the hillside home of French planter Emile de Becque (equity actor Marc G. Dalio). Ensign Nellie Forbush (Annabelle Garcia) has been invited there for lunch. We can feel her nervousness as she ponders the mutual attraction between the older but very charming Frenchman and herself. Then, as we meet the men stationed on an unnamed island awaiting orders for combat, it is as though we are seeing real Navy men, Seabees and Marines—noisy, boisterous and hungering for female companionship. Bloody Mary (Ru Pujara) is more bizarre in appearance than we have ever seen her as she tries to peddle her grass skirts and shrunken heads to the men. But when she sees Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Michael Kane Libonati), the “saxy” man she envisions as a husband for her daughter, nothing matters but her lovely voice as she casts a spell with the song “Bali Ha’i.” It is only a matter of time until Cable is bound for this “special island,” along with wheeler-dealer Seabee Luther Billis (Don Fransko), who wants to see a certain native ceremony.
Most of us know the rest of the story, but here it is told with more passion and realism than we are used to seeing. We enjoy the comedy, along with the romantic songs like “Some Enchanted Evening” and the amusing ones like “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” but eventually we are faced with the reality, not only of war, but of the racial prejudice of the “folks back home.” Nellie feels that she cannot marry Emile because of his two children by a Polynesian woman, and Cable feels that he cannot marry Bloody Mary’s beautiful daughter Liat (Kaitlyn Plocharski). Devastated, both men leave on a dangerous spying mission. Eventually Nellie learns of this and realizes what really matters to her.
Director Jessica Doheny, choreographer Brian Rivell and vocal director Collin Maier have done amazing work in bringing new life to an old standard. The large cast, made up mostly of newcomers to the Ritz, is uniformly excellent. Dalio, as Emile, is a strong presence with a powerful voice. Garcia won hearts with her portrayal of Nellie and her singing and dancing, especially in the lively number “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” (of course she doesn’t). The audience loved Pujara’s Bloody Mary, as well as Fransko’s Billis, always ready to make a buck (or try to) or create a diversion. Libonati brings great intensity to the role of Lt. Cable, who knows that “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” to hate people who are unlike yourself. We should not forget Steven Ciapanna as Captain “Iron Belly” Brackett or John T. Danley as Commander William Harbison. Or the charming children, Simon Hamilton and Anna Kralik, who play Emile’s offspring, Jerome and Ngana. And there are all the wonderful enlisted men and the nurses, who appear in 1940s bathing suits during most of Act I. All the costumes are great, and the sets and the use of projections add beauty and authenticity to this truly memorable production.
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Jessica Doheny
Vocal Direction by Collin Maier
Choreography by Brian Rivell
October 18-November 17
Ritz Theatre Company
915 White Horse Pike
Haddon Township, NJ 08137