Broadway’s David Pittsinger Stars In Stellar ‘South Pacific’ At Ivoryton
By Frank Rizzo
The show: “South Pacific” at Ivoryton Playhouse.
What makes it special?: It stars bass-baritone David Pittsinger, who played the role on Broadway and in the national tour, and his wife, opera singer Patricia Schuman.
First impressions?: The singing. Sublime. If you do nothing but just lean back and listen to the glorious voices, it will be time well spent. But this is one of Ivoryton’s best productions and you won’t want to miss out on the entirety of a production that is well-acted, smartly designed and nicely staged.
But it’s a musical chestnut: The music may be part of the standard Broadway repertoire but the narrative, based on James Michener’s stories set on in the South Pacific during the height of World War II, is still emotionally moving (don’t be surprised if there’s some sniffling in the audience), sumptuously romantic (some sighs, too) and stunningly relevant.
Relevant?: The themes of prejudice — nurse Nellie Forbush (Adrianne Hick) and Lt. Joseph Cable (Peter Carrier) feel conflicted in their love because of matters of race — feel contemporary, sadly. When Carrier sings “Carefully Taught” — one of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II’s most stirring songs — which challenges the notion that people are “born” with prejudice, it’s a goose-bump moment, just as it must have been when the show had its world premiere at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven in 1949.
But thanks to the skillfully crafted script by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, the audience also will be swept up in the show’s humor, drama and especially the story’s two romances, which are swoon-inducing, in no small part because of the rapturous singing.
Pittsinger as Emile de Becque wears the role of the suave French plantation owner like an impeccably tailored silk suit. Maturely handsome, elegant and wry, it’s no wonder hick-from-the-sticks Nellie is smitten by his sophisticated smoothness. Any remaining resistance melts away when he sings “Some Enchanted Evening” — not just with low-baritone bravado but with sincere feeling — who can blame her?
And Emile’s attraction to Nellie makes perfect sense, too. Hick is a natural charmer, funny, kind, up-beat and easy-going and she neatly lands her solos including “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “Wonderful Guy.”
And the rest of the cast?: Schuman brings humor, energy, cunning and poignance as Bloody Mary and sings a dreamy “Bali Ha’i” and a delightful “Happy Talk.” Carrier makes for a believably conflicted Main Line straight-arrow; R. Bruce Connelly is solid as the captain and William Selby has fun — sometimes a little too much fun — as Luther Billis. The ensembles do well, especially the male chorus for a rousing “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” nicely staged by director and choreographer David Edwards. Music director Michael McAssey leads the six-piece orchestra.
Who will like it?: Fans of Rodgers & Hammerstein, lush Broadway scores and escapes to tropical paradises.
Who won’t?: Enemies of tolerance, justice and sentimentality.
For the kids?: Yes. They need to be carefully taught, too.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: You will leave the production on a Bali Ha’i.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: I forgot what a powerhouse first scene the show has and how daring it must have been at the time — and now. The musical plunges us straight into the blossoming relationship between Forbush and de Becque that artfully segues from friendly, to flirtatious to passionate with the trio of emotionally rich and character-specific songs, from “A Cock-Eyed Optimist,” to the “Twin Soliloquies,” to a “Some Enchanted Evening.” Not impressed enough? The next scene will leave you breathless with “Bloody Mary,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and “Bali Ha’i.”
The basics: “South Pacific” continues through July 26 at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St. in Essex. Running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes. Tickets are $42. Information at 860- 767-7318 and ivorytonplayhouse.org.
A Supremely Satisfying “South Pacific”
By Geary Danihy -CT Critics Circle.
It opened on Broadway in 1949. with the horrors and triumphs of World War II still fresh in playgoers’ minds. A smash hit, it was not without controversy, with the composer, Richard Rodgers, and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, being pressured to remove one song: “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” They refused, and South Pacific, based on James Mitchener’s Tales of the South Pacific, went on to join “Oklahoma” as classics of the American stage, glistening examples of what has been called the “Golden Era” of American musicals.
Since the musical’s opening it has been seen by millions of American either in its Broadway iterations (most recently in 2008, starring Kelli O’Hara), a somewhat color-drenched 1958 film directed by Joshua Logan, numerous road-show productions, in regional and local efforts, and many high school productions. Thus, it is familiar territory, even for those who are only occasional theatergoers, and this means that any new production faces high expectations and a demand that it be faithful, as much as possible, to what people remember and cherish. It’s my pleasure to report the production that recently opened at Ivoryton Playhouse meets and exceeds expectations, offering two-plus hours of sheer enchantment.
As deftly directed by David Edwards, who also choreographed the show, this production satisfies on just about every level, with a cast that, with minor exceptions, makes you forget any who have come before them. The major draw, going in, was the Playhouse’s good fortune to cast David Pittsinger as the French planter, Emile de Becque, and his wife, Patricia Shuman, as Bloody Mary. For Ivoryton, these are big names â€“ Pittsinger is a renowned performer who has been seen in major opera houses, concert halls and on Broadway, and Schuman has similar credits, having sung leading roles in opera, at festivals and on concert stages.
The stage they are currently treading may be small in comparison to where they have performed before, but their performances are larger than life. Pittsinger, with his resonating bass-baritone voice and commanding stage presence, is de Becque personified, and when he sings “Some Enchanted Evening” or “This Nearly Was Mine,” you simply hold your breath so as not to disturb the wonderful sound that envelops you.
Equally satisfying is Schuman’s performance as the foul-mouthed, entrepreneurial Bloody Mary. If you didn’t read the program you would never know that she is famous for portraying Mozart heroines, for her Bloody Mary is as crass (“Stingy bastards!”) and down-to-earth as you could wish for, yet her operatic training lends a luminous quality to “Bali Hai” and a lilting loveliness to “Happy Talk.”
One would think that with Pittsinger and Schuman on the stage they couldn’t help but dominate both the eye and the ear, but such is not the case, for as satisfying as their performances are, they are overshadowed by Adrianne Hick’s lead performance as Nellie Forbush. She is, quite simply, a delight, for she totally captures the role of the “hick” nurse from Little Rock who is initially overwhelmed by de Becque’s attention but then succumbs to inbred racist tendencies to reject him, only to realize that her heart must win out over her upbringing.
Some actresses can sing the role, while other actresses can act the role, but Hick does both with style, aplomb and an infectious glee that makes you yearn for and anticipate her next appearance on stage. One senses that with each of her numbers — “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy” and “Honey Bun” — the audience had to restrain itself from calling for encores. She’s just that good.
Artistic director Jacqueline Hubbard has assembled a large cast for this production, but Edwards seems not to have been daunted by the numbers versus space ratio. His use of the stage (and the aisles) is both creative and effective, no more so than in the penultimate number, a reprise of “Honey Bun” as marines, sailors and nurses ship out to a combat zone. Somewhat reminiscent of the “shipping out” scene in Milos Forman’s film version of “Hair,” Edwards has the cast members march, singing the humorous “Honey Bun” number but moving to the persistent beat of a drum, onto the stage to form a V, then descend the center stairs into the darkened house until the stage, for a moment, is empty. It’s staging that makes a point without having to say a word.
Anyone who has been to Ivoryton knows that the stage is somewhat limited, but thanks to lighting designer Marcus Abbott and scenic designer Daniel Nischan, Ivoryton’s stage becomes as large as the Pacific Ocean itself â€“ it shimmers, it broods, it glistens â€“ and, given Tate Burmeister’s sound design, it often rumbles with the sound of surf and rattles with the roar of planes flying overhead. These creative efforts add to the luminous and engaging quality of the show and help make the evening as satisfying as it is.
Upon hearing that Ivoryton had chosen to stage South Pacific, one might have thought that the venerable venue had perhaps bitten off more than it could chew. One would have been wrong. This production is a gem with multiple star-turns, a stellar supporting cast that includes R. Bruce Connelly as the pugnacious Capt. Brackett and William Selby as the irrepressible Luther Billis, and a “vision” of what South Pacific should be that everyone involved has obviously bought into. And then there’s Adrianne Hick’s performance, one that, in itself, makes it worth the drive out to the tiny, picturesque town of Ivoryton.
South Pacific runs through July 26. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.
In creating a musical for a limited run, seldom does every element harmoniously blend to achieve a perfect production. But this harmony has become a reality with the Ivoryton Playhouse’s exquisite interpretation of South Pacific. At the theater only until July 26, the Broadway-quality show, as deftly and lovingly directed and choreographed by David Edwards, deserves continued life after Ivoryton’s run – and a savvy producer would be well-served to pick up this show and run with it.
Winning ten Tony Awards, the original musical, based on James A. Michener’s novel Tales of the South Pacific, is perfectly relevant today with the issue of racism still resonating in the headlines. All the elements of a great show are there – especially Ivoryton’s principal players whose voices, acting chops and stage presence certainly are of the standard that Josh Logan, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein must have had in mind when they created this still timely musical back in 1949.
Enhancing the principals is a terrifically talented ensemble cast as the WWII sailors, Marines, Seabees and nurses. This delightful group of young performers are students or graduates of some of the best musical theater schools in the country (The Hartt School, Ithaca College and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts among others) and have the confidence and stage presence of seasoned stage veterans. Their choral voices are so beautifully blended in “There is Nothin’ Like A Dame,” “I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man (Right Outa My Hair)” that it’s difficult to accept the moment when the outstanding voices and songs have to move on other touching and humorous scenes. Every individual is played with joie de vivre and with an undercurrent of bubbling sexuality and fear – wondering if each day will be their last. The show is so vivid and compelling that it’s easy to believe we are watching history unfold on a real South sea island.
David Pittsinger as plantation owner Emile de Becque has a bass-baritone as rich as one will ever hear on any stage. His “Some Enchanted Evening” and ‘This Nearly Was Mine” are memorable, and he deservedly received great personal notices for of his Emile and when he sang it at the Kennedy Center. The Washington Times critic said of Mr. Pittsinger’s performance, “…”the definitive interpretation of this role in our time.” To that we add “Bravo!”
Playing opposite Emile as the vivacious nurse from Little Rock, Ensign Nellie Forbush, is the delightfully enthusiastic Adrianne Hick, who grabs us immediately as she describes herself as “A Cockeyed Optimist” and continues to enthrall us with washing that man out of her hair and “Honey Bun.” She has a crystal-clear vocal range that is perfect for those melodic Rogers and Hammerstein songs.
As the make-a-quick buck con-man sailor Luther Billis, character actor William Selby, a veteran of Forbidden Broadway productions nationwide, provides all the over-the-top comic relief that an audience could wish for. His way with Billis’s wacky schemes and plans are only matched by the foul-mouthed, loveable Tonkinese peddler Bloody Mary, played by the brilliant soprano Patricia Schuman. The sailors sing “Bloody Mary is the Girl I Love” and so do we. Patricia brings comedy, empathy and joy to her sensational performance as Mary and when she sings “Bali Ha’i” one feels a longing for the island paradise that was once her home. She later enchants us with “Happy Talk” when she tells her daughter, Liat, that gentle happy talk will make her married life joyful. Annelise Cepero makes a stunning and effective Liat, and, in a part with almost no dialogue, she is memorable for her graceful movement, skillful reactions and quietly delicate beauty.
Peter Carrier as Lt. Cable, USMC, sings one of the loveliest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies “Younger Than Springtime” with the tenderness of a young man in love for the first time, and when it’s clear that there will be no future for him and Liat in the United States because of her color, his “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” is a powerful indictment against bigotry, racism and hatred. It is today as daring and courageous a scene as it was the 1949 production.
Emile’s daughter, Nagana, is played at alternate performances by both Kaiya Colguhoun and Avital Goldberg-Curran, and his little son Jerome is brought to life by Dylan Huber. The children winningly ‘open’ the show – they are the first on stage, and their sweet rendition of “Dites-Moi” (Tell Me) establishes the loving relationship and deep bond that Emile has with his mixed-race children.
Bruce Connelly again triumphantly steps on to the Ivoryton Playhouse stage as USN Captain George Brackett, an appropriately bombastic senior officer, while as Brackett’s colleague Cmdr. William Harbision, Tom Libonate is appropriately, and often comically, subordinate. Brian Michael Henry as the roguish ‘Stewpot’ shows off his deep vocal abilities in a quick solo during the “Dame” number, much to the pleasure of the audience. Most every ensemble player skillfully does double duty as in many small parts. One actor with extra stage time is Johann George, who, as Henri, Emile’s butler, is always perfectly “right there” but nearly – and deliberately – invisible.
Big cheers to Musical Director Michael McAssey, and his seven musicians who are unseen but wonderfully heard. The score is beautifully played and never once did it overwhelm, but always enhanced the singers. The blend of vocals and instruments is another example of perfection. Sound Designer Tate Burmeister receives huge applause for allowing us, way up in the rear of the balcony, to hear every word, every lyric, and every note as clearly as if we were sitting in the front row. With Tate at the sound board, we’ll happily choose the balcony seats every time.
The simplicity and effectiveness of the sun-brushed South Seas set designed by Daniel Nischan in combination with lighting by Marcus Abbott illustrates that minimalism and color can create an illusion of endless sea, tropical island paradise, and beachfront billeting in wartime, without building elaborate constructions. The costumes by Lenore Grunko invoke the look and feel of WWII, and both the boys and girls of the ensemble look just as comfortable in their rag-tag ‘at ease’ clothes, as they do in uniform. Bloody Mary, Liat and the other islanders are authentically garbed, and Emile and Nellie wear their clothes with style – even if they are in the middle of a war, they still can look good! Congrats to Stage Manager Theresa Stark for getting all the scenes changed so quickly and without fuss, and to Joel Silvestro, whose wig and hair design enabled Patricia Shuman to become what will prove to be an iconic Bloody Mary. And, we applaud Dance Captain and Assistant Choreographer Carolina Santos Read for keeping those sailors and nurses steppin’ sprightly to the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical numbers.
A reprise of cheers, standing ovations and big whoops go again to David Edwards for his intimate and loving direction of this wonderful show. If Logan, Rodgers and Hammerstein were with us today, they surely would look at this production with pride and joy. After you see this exceptional show, you’ll doubtlessly think of the Ivoryton Playhouse as “your own special island.”
South Pacific is at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 26th. Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
By public demand, there will be two Saturday matinees on July 18th and 25th at 2 p.m. and one additional matinee on Thursday, July 16th.
Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or surfing ivorytonplayhouse.org The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.