Review: ‘South Pacific’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

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The South Pacific of your dreams was just sighted at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia. Never mind the current debate over “New York values” versus “Iowa values” — here you will find Rodgers & Hammerstein values in all their “high as a kite” romantic splendor.

Nellie & the Nurses. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.
Nellie (Teresa Dansky) and the Nurses. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

Adroit casting by Director/Choreographer Mark Minnick brings us not just the most attractive cast of actor-singers we’ve seen at Toby’s in recent memory. It also returns front-and-center those special World War II romances between its two separate pairs of mismatched lovers.

Of course, we in the audience know better, which makes the outcome of those love affairs so tearfully bittersweet.

And, boy, do they ever come at us backlit by a fiery barrage of hit show tunes: “Some Enchanted Evening.” “A Wonderful Guy.” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” “Younger Than Springtime.” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.” “Honey Bun.” And on and on.

There’s nothing like a snow blizzard at home to make us ecstatic about getting out of the house to hear “Bali Ha’i” calling. In the full-throated evocation of that mythical island by Crystal Freeman, this show’s Bloody Mary, you may indeed find yourself looking for the next boat.  When not casting her musical spells, Freeman is a delight as the beachcombing entrepreneur with the best South Seas supply chain for shrunken heads and boars’ teeth.

It’s Bloody Mary’s young daughter Liat who forms an instant bond with that “saxy” Navy man, Lt. Joe Cable. If you see anyone on stage this season half as enchanting as youthful Surasree Das as Liat, you will have had a remarkable theater year. The Toby’s newcomer exhibits a natural grace and joy that are heart-rending in their sweetness and beauty.

As Lt. Cable, Jonathan Helwig, last seen at Toby’s as one of the “charming” princes in Into the Woods, is also pure eye-candy as the young American hero who proves more cut-out for combat than for interracial affairs. Helwig has the dark, brooding handsomeness of the early Montgomery Clift, and his acting is believable, though his singing  on “Younger Than Springtime” and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” is more precise than bodily supported.

The better model for full-bodied vocalizing is Russell Rinker, another Toby’s newcomer. As Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner with a scandalous background, Rinker gets both of the show’s serious, time-honored classics, “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” He does an outstanding job with both, and projects dignity and yearning in his quieter soliloquies and monologues.

Russell Rinker and Teresa Dansky.
Russell Rinker and Teresa Dansky. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

In many ways, however, the soul and dramatic vitality of this production comes from the spirited and credible star turn by Teresa Dansky as Ensign Nellie Forbush. Dansky has some of Julie Andrews’ buoyant charisma, and can similarly take an audience along with her into much darker territory.

Still, watching Dansky’s Nellie proclaim herself a “Cockeyed Optimist” and then kick up her heels when she has found herself “A Wonderful Guy” is all the invitation we need to relive young love.

South Pacific Follies. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.
South Pacific Follies. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

A special round of applause for Mark Minnick’s expressive choreography here: Not only does he evoke the swing and big band dancehall feel of the WW II era, I loved those syncopated kicks that Nellie gives a split second after the beat in “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”

The supporting players are drawn from Toby’s reliable repertory of singing-dancing stars. Jeffrey Shankle almost steals the scenes from the lovers as conniving wheeler-dealer Luther Billis. And salty Captain Brackett could hardly be given more quiet authority than in the humorous performance of Robert Biedermann.

Conductors Reenie Codelka and Barry Hamilton most typically oversaw a smooth live band equal to the wonderful Richard Rodgers compositions.

Colorful period costumes, some stock and others a special array added by designer Lawrence B. Munsey, convey the military culture while making a modern appeal to the eye as well.

David A. Hopkins’ moody lighting, smoke effects, and setting designs added to the storytelling. Though mostly sparse, the props provided at least one elaborate effect in the revving of an angry warplane propeller.

If you can’t get to your lonely island of choice this winter, shake off your snow doldrums and head over to Toby’s Dinner Theatre. At this South Pacific, the romance is as warm and sweet as a tropical breeze and twice as rejuvenating.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

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South Pacific plays through March 20, 2016 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311, or 800-88TOBYS . For information and a schedule go online.

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