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Memorable Cast Makes 'South Pacific' Soar at Paper Mill Playhouse

Liz Keill

Monday, April 14, 2014 • 1:05pm

MILLBURN, NJ - Those glorious Rodgers and Hammerstein songs just keep coming and coming, all awash on the shores of the South Pacific.

The show is receiving an unforgettable production at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. Director Rob Ruggiero has assembled a superb cast that brings joy and passion to this familiar story, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific.”

Mike McGowan as Emile de Becque has a rich baritone that’s a real show-stopper, especially with the grand “Some Enchanted Evening” and the pensive “This Nearly Was Mine.” McGowan charmed audiences several years ago as the rakish Petruchio in “Kiss Me Kate.” Will he be back for “Can Can,” next fall’s opener? 

Erin Mackey as Ens. Nellie Forbush has the Southern drawl to convince us she’s from Little Rock, Ark. And that’s a crucial element in this play, as much revolves around racial issues that some Americans struggle with on the Polynesian island. Mackey brings a wealth of exuberance to the part, from “A Cockeyed Optimist” to “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.”  But at the heart of it, there’s an intimacy that makes you believe these two love each other.

Well, the song titles are endless, all memorable, and all hummable with words you won’t forget.

Loretta Ables Sayre is Bloody Mary, who is determined to sell grass skirts and shrunken heads to the Seabees on the island. Her renditions of “Bali Hai” and “Happy Talk” show tremendous range, from pleading to a harsh realism.  Mary is determined to marry her lovely daughter, Liat (Jessica Wu), to Lt. Cable. When Doug Carpenter as Cable sings “Younger than Springtime,” the audience just about explodes. The tender love song is beautifully rendered.

But there’s so much more to this play than lots of singable songs. The message of prejudice, as in the powerful, understated “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” is a brilliant example of the way prejudice gets under our skin and in our minds. ”You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught. ”)  Hammerstein’s words still carry a powerful message.

Then we have the wise-cracking sailors with “There is Nothing Like a Dame” with Tally Sessions as Luther Billis, constantly wisecracking and stirring up trouble.  

A hilarious Nellie sings “Honey Bun” for the camp’s show, with Billis dressed as a hula girl in grass skirt and coconut breasts. What’s striking about that throw-away ditty is that it’s used to dramatic effect in Act II, just as the troop is being shipped out.

Although “South Pacific” was written 65 years ago, it still seems fresh and new.

Even the children, Ngana and Jerome, singing;”Dite-Moi” are appealing without being overly sweet. Costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by John Lasiter, choreography by Ralph Perkins and music direction by Brad Haak all deserve credit for making this quite a show. Michael Yeargan’s scenic design provides a mystical  “Bali  Hai” that sometimes shimmers in the distance. .

For a perfectly enchanting evening, don’t miss “South Pacific.” Performances continue at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn through May 4. For tickets, call (973) 376-4343 or visit papermill.org. 

 The Guest Column is our readers' opportunity to write about a given issue or topic in an in-depth and educational manner.

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