Review: ‘South Pacific’ at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, PA

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The hunger for optimism is never in short supply these days. Walnut Street Theatre brings life to an American classic in their current production of South Pacific under the direction of Charles Abbott, with choreography by Michelle Gaudette. Full of sunshine and idyllic landscapes, this taste of paradise has a bit more to offer than just escapism.

The Company of 'South Pacific.' Photo by Mark Garvin.
The Company of ‘South Pacific.’ Photo by Mark Garvin.

With music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, South Pacific begins unflinchingly as a parade of some of America’s favorite showtunes – “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Younger Than Springtime,” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.”

Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener, the book scenes – by Oscar Hammerstein II and original director Joshua Logan – leave quite a bit to be desired. However, as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most topical work, the thematic explorations of racism and a world at war – still relevant today –  caused a bit of a stir when originally produced in 1949.

Kate Fahrner, Courtney Chu, Kwanchi Loo, and Paul Schoeffler. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Kate Fahrner, Courtney Chu, Kwanchi Loo, and Paul Schoeffler. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Our heroine, Kate Fahrner as Ensign Nellie Forbush, begins as a self-proclaimed hick from Little Rock, stationed on an island in the South Pacific during WWII. Fahrner has an easy charm and an infectious smile, all the while carrying the weight of Nellie’s troubles. Perhaps a bit quirkier than your run-of-the-mill “cock-eyed optimist,” she matches well with the casual and cool Paul Schoeffler as the local French planter, Emile de Becque. As they quickly fall for each other, both handle the sweeping score deftly while diving deep into the emotional baggage of troubled pasts and current prejudices.

Lightening the mood is a beach full of handsome Seabees helmed by the mischievous Fran Prisco (Luther Billis). A strong ensemble with a booming sound – under the musical direction of John Daniels – they delight in antagonizing local merchant Bloody Mary (Lori Tan Chinn) when they’re not ogling the female nurses. While not a highly demanding ensemble show, everyone stationed on the island brings a welcomed bit of uniqueness to the group, making the landscape feel all the more genuine.

Sean Thompson, Dan Olmstead, Owen Pelesh, and Jeffrey Coon. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Sean Thompson, Dan Olmstead, Owen Pelesh, and Jeffrey Coon. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Thanks to the stalwart leadership of Jeffrey Coon (Commander William Harbison) and Dan Olmstead (Captain George Brackett), the military scenes come into sharp focus. Often glanced over for the two famous and hummable love stories, the ever-present background of WWII reminds us of a nation fighting off terrifying, if unknown, bullies.

Ben Michael (Lieutenant Joseph Cable) has certainly become one of Philadelphia’s most promising leading men. His tall, broad build and an uncompromisingly strong chin make him a perfect fit. But his smart sensitivities, not to mention a soaring tenor, bring out Lt. Cable’s nobility as a potential military hero, and his sadness as a star-crossed lover in scenes with his beloved, Liat (Alison T. Chi).

Alison T. Chi and Ben Michael. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Alison T. Chi and Ben Michael. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Robert Andrew Kovach’s set design delivers this Golden Age classic as if on the front of a postcard, with a lush jungle of palms and flowers and a glittering sea in the distance. Paul Black’s lighting design soaks the beaches with sun and shoots through the dark island recesses, while Ryan Peavey’s sound design keeps the rolling waves just in the distance along with the threatening sounds of war. Mary Folino’s costume design compiles a rich mixture of casual island wear, mid-century wholesomeness, and military uniform, with plenty of fun to be had in the Thanksgiving pageant.

While the progressive takes on racism and international tumult continue to resonate so many decades later, a few plot lines have weathered over the years, as one might expect. Schoeffler and Fahrner take their roles in a love story familiar to Rodgers and Hammerstein fans – a younger woman in an unfamiliar world, falling helplessly for an older, more powerful man. The script then doubles down with a parallel relationship between Cable and Liat, but infinitely more skeptical than the former as Liat appears frighteningly young next to the to the handsome Lieutenant, all the while being romantically auctioned off by her mother.

Walnut Street Theatre’s production highlights the joys of love and celebration while still living in the reality of combat. The message of racial equality in South Pacific is present, but by no means harsh. The script introduces the problem, but does not grapple with it, preferring instead to illuminate the heart and sincerity of each role. Through it all, Nellie Forbush remains a symbol of the great American resilience in the face of hardship.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

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South Pacific plays through October 23, 2016 at Walnut Street Theatre – 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call (215) 574-3550, or purchase them online.