Arena Stage's South Pacific does poor justice
Before the house lights dim for Arena Stage's rendition of "South Pacific," an announcement asks that the audience please refrain from singing along to the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. But the voice on the other end of the loudspeaker might have been better off requesting help in the singing department, as the show's visual success couldn't make up for its weak talent.
Both leads in the musical comedic drama are deficient in the area of vocal ability. Kate Baldwin, portraying Ensign Nellie Forbush, sang as if she had a severe nasal infection where as Richard White's, playing Emile de Becque, diction was as nonexistent as palm trees in Siberia. White sang his part in the traditional operatic bass, but the vibrato was overpowering.
"South Pacific" - the second longest running musical of its decade - follows the lives of several fictional characters on a secluded island in the…South Pacific…during World War II. The award-winning story follows Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Brad Anderson) in his conquest to sabotage the Japanese by spying on boat movements. To do this, he must enlist the help of French plantation owner, Emile de Becque who is in love with Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. When de Becque refuses the mission, Cable spends some recreational time on the island of Bali Ha'i with the help of a few 'seabies', namely Luther Billis, played by Lawrence Redmond.
Rogers and Hammerstein's background theme of racism is played out subtly by the Arena Stage cast. Forbush and Cable's ethical qualms over interracial relationships supply the basis of the second act and propound such musical numbers as "You've Got to Be Taught." In this number, Anderson shines as the show's best vocalist, but he cannot portray the role of a lieutenant; he is too melodramatic.
Though the other singers are disappointing, the superb theatrics may save the play for deaf audience members. Baayork Lee's choreography is outstanding throughout.
Blocking could have been improved, however, in order to treat all sides of the quadrangle stage. Audience members sitting in the left section of the theater are given the short shift during the 'Thanksgiving Follies' scenes and instead treated to the sight of the actors' backsides. In the second act, De Becque refuses to reposition himself throughout the entirety of "This Nearly Was Mine," leaving the right side of the theatre to enjoy the orchestra accompaniment.
Perhaps it was for the best, though, as George Fulginti-Shakar's pit orchestra was musical leagues beyond White's slap-in-the-face vibrato. The band remained hidden under the stage. Only Shakar's head poked out of a hole in the floor, allowing the hidden music to blend with the scenery and action, but making it hard to applaud the musicians who held the show together.
To the die-hard Rogers and Hammerstein fans: don't let Arena's performance ruin those fond memories of "South Pacific." For those who are not familiar with the show, wait for a better quality performance that will do justice to the beloved musical's classic songs and characters.
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