By Pat Launer
‘Twas a musical weekend
When all over town
Old chestnuts re-heated
By groups of renown
Were sailing the Pacific and saying “I Do!”
While Oliver asked for ‘Some more!’ — right on cue.
For years, “South Pacific” has been one of the most performed shows — by stock, college and amateur groups throughout the country. Based on stories from the James Michener novel, “Tales from the Pacific,” the musical has a superb Rodgers and Hammerstein score, filled with singalong songs (“There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “Wonderful Guy,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “Honey Bun”). When was the last time you could sing that many songs in a musical off the top of your head?? So, with its pedigree, and with the 33 years of operation of Lamb’s Players Theatre, it was only a matter of time.
Despite its magnificent score, the musical can feel a tad dated. So, to make it more relevant, especially for the Coronado crowd, director Deborah Gilmour Smyth opted to set the show on a modern aircraft carrier, where the crew is putting on a production of “South Pacific.” Of course, the crew in the show is already putting on a production (hence, the “Honey Bun” number), but what’s another show within a show among friends? Actually, Smyth had a lot of other ideas, including color-blind casting of Nellie, but the Rodgers/Hammerstein estates were adamant about not allowing changes. So there the show is, set on this ship (wonderful scenic design by Mike Buckley — but all the outdoor settings are relegated curtain/drapes), and besides a mention or two before the opening, in the hallways and at intermission, that’s as far as it goes. Which isn’t very far. So the change doesn’t really add anything to the evening.
Smyth’s cast of 24 is energetic and enthusiastic. Her direction is fine, but the choreography (Pamela Turner) looks a little cheesy and is not smoothly executed. The men do fine in numbers like “Nothing Like a Dame,” but the distaff side is weaker, both vocally and choreographically. The acting performances are uniformly strong (no pun intended). The uniforms (Jeanne Reith) and other costumes are apt and attractive. It’s the musical end that falls down on the job at times. The 7-piece band, under the direction of Cris O’Bryon, manages to sound fuller than it is (the orchestration calls for 19 instruments), but there’s something decidedly old-fashioned about the way they make the score sound, and that doesn’t do anything to ‘freshen’ up this old chestnut. As for the singing, some of the leads just aren’t up to the demands of the score, though perky Erika Beth Phillips as Nellie Forbush, the ensign from Little Rock) and David S. Humphrey, as the “sexy lutellan,” USMC Lt. Joe Cable, do lovely work on all their numbers. Doren Elias does a fine comic turn as wheeler-dealer Luther Billis. Stephen Godwin is credible, attractive and undeniably charming as the French planter, Emile de Becque, who falls in love with Nellie, but he hasn’t quite got the chops for his gorgeous songs. Fortunately, he pulls them off with sheer persona. Same goes for Linda Libby as Bloody Mary. Normally very vocally powerful, she seems to be straining (opening night vocal fatigue, maybe?) to put her songs across. But she makes Mary quite the potent, convincing hustler, and humorous, too. Antonio “T.J.” Johnson cuts an imposing figure as Capt. Brackett and Dennis J. Scott puts in his usual natural and convincing performance as Commander Harbison. Two of the ensemble members really stand out for their vibrancy and personality: Nick Cordileone and K.B. Mercer. It’s especially funny when she does a comic imitation of Billis (her real-life husband, Doren Elias). Jim Mooney is amusingly dense as Stewpot, and Michaela Chavez and Kaylind Batey are adorable as Emile’s two young children. Overall, there are some disconnects between the whole and the parts, which makes for a less than totally satisfying evening.
At the opening, there were obviously many folks in the audience who’d never seen the play before. They seemed to be smitten by the (clumsy) efforts at promoting racial tolerance; Humphrey does a very solid, committed rendition of the pointedly cynical song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
If you’ve never seen the show, or if it’s been a long time, this is a pleasant introduction. If you have strong memories of spectacular productions, it may prove somewhat less than thrilling.
When it opened in 1966, “I Do! I Do!” may have been the first Broadway musical ever with a cast of just two people. But since those people happened to have been Mary Martin and Robert Preston, there wasn’t really much need for anyone else. The same may be said for the local cast of the Fritz Theatre production, in its new, downtown dinner-theater venue at the 6th Avenue Bistro.
Leigh Scarritt and Duane Daniels are so talented and charismatic, they can mesmerize any audience, just being/looking themselves, let alone aging 50 years over the course of two hours (Leigh is especially amazing tottering around as an old lady — still with well-coifed blonde hair!! Duane miraculously morphs into Jimmy Stewart as an old man). They interact wonderfully, and sing marvelously, and seem to be having a super time all around. But the ride they take us on is much better than the vehicle they’re given.
Director Bradley Flanagan (who, according to his Bio, has choreography credits among his “25 years in the business of show,” though most of his experience seemed to have been in film, industrials and producing for Rhino Records) doesn’t give his actors much to do, certainly not in the realm of dance, even given the spatial constraints of the venue. The original Broadway production (nominated for six Tonys) was directed by Gower Champion, and the inventiveness of his contribution was legendary. Not so here. We have to be content with a fairly dusty, musty piece in the hands of two terrific pros, a duo more delicious than the institutional/industrial dinner (chicken breast and mashed potatoes, followed by cheesecake and decaf; wine/beer are available).
The musical, more like a timeline revue, was adapted from Jan de Hartog’s 1951 play, “The Fourposter.” It chronicles five decades in the life of a married couple, a theme that’s been attacked (bludgeoned??) in numerous plays, movies and musicals since. We see this couple evolve from their (virginal) wedding night to the day they move out of their empty nest and into an apartment. Michael is a writer; Agnes doesn’t seem to do much besides shop and raise the kids; she’s a good, early 20th century wifey. At one point, he tells her: “If you don’t like playing second fiddle, quit the orchestra.” Nice.
They have children, arguments and a near split. There’s an affair, and the kids get married. They age and move out of their big house. The songs get a little sentimental and sappy — the best known are “My Cup Runneth Over” and (most popularly, the Steve-and-Eydie version of) “The Honeymoon is Over”). Leigh and Duane do a funny turn in “Nobody’s Perfect” (“Let’s make a list of irritating habits”). Rayme Sciaroni serves as musical director and accompanist, but despite the sentimentality, there isn’t much schmaltz in the production — for good or for ill. Not much youth-appeal either. But if, by “family-oriented fare” the Fritz is shooting for an “older” audience, then this musical should draw them in. It’s certainly got the star-power. But as for loving the show? I didn’t. I didn’t.
We caught the final performance of CYT’s “Oliver!” up in Oceanside last weekend, and it was a delightful surprise. There seemed to be about a zillion kids onstage (more like 60) and they were impressively focused, attentive and talented. The direction (David Macy-Beckwith) and choreography (Kelsey Aschberger and Lexie Allen) were inventive, as were the costumes (Leslie Mitchell), which, I understand, were cobbled together on a very tight budget. There were a few slow moments and weak spots, but overall, the show was excellently executed by this young cast. It was a bittersweet production, since some of the leads are turning 18 or graduating high school, and have to leave CYT. Young Blake Thomas, making his CYT debut as the title character, will probably be around for awhile. But Evan Macy-Beckwith, splendid as Fagin, has to move on, as do the deliciously dark Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry — Zach Pannell (who looked like a cross between Ed Wood and Boris Karloff) and Elizabeth Kovanic (who’s performed in 18 CYT shows). With his tall, dark appearance and luscious baritone, Eric Field was aptly terrifying as Bad Bill Sykes; Andrew Hart (19th show with CYT) was lithe and adorable as the Artful Dodger and Melissa Mitchell gave vent to her lovely, powerful voice as Nancy (her first lead at CYT, though she’s been part of the group since age 11). Local casting directors, take note! These multi-talented kids are on the loose!
EVERYTHING’S COMING UP TONY….
The Tonys, as you probably know, are coming up on Sunday, June 6. The next night, I’ll be guest-hosting on KPBS-TV’s “Full Focus,” for a whole show devoted to the Tonys — and San Diego connections to the New York theater scene. Don’t miss it — Monday, June 7, KPBS-TV (channel 15/cable 11) at 6:30 and 11pm.
Just a reminder that I’m gonna be performing in a staged reading of “Mendel, Inc.,” as part of the 11th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. Todd Salovey directs, and David Ellenstein heads a large cast (I play his wife) in this comic Broadway hit from 1929. Playwright David Friedman was a comedy writer for Fanny Brice; his son, age 80+, is on faculty at UCSD and will attend the performance. Check it out — one night only! WEDNESDAY, JUNE 2 at 7pm at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Tickets, I understand, are going fast (888-776-NCRT; www.northcoastrep.org).
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“A Life in the Theater” — outstanding duet by Jonathan McMurtry and Fran Gercke; they play actors who play off each other beautifully; at North Coast Rep, through June 6.
“The Road to Mecca” — Priscilla Allen and Jessica John in Athol Fugard’s thought-provoking play about the power of art; off-nights at 6th @ Penn, through June 2.
“Shirley Valentine” — virtuoso performance by Rosina Reynolds in a warm, funny, touching play. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through June 6, and at North Coast Repertory Theatre from June 10-13.
Have a great Memorial Day — and remember to go to the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.