Pulitzer novel provides paradise-based musical

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By Bob Evans

While Kansas City swelters, Theatre in the Park provided an evening respite during “The Little Mermaid,” but the heat and passion now graces the stage as one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s celebrated musical, “South Pacific” opens for seven performances beginning June 22.

The musical adapted from the James Michener’s Pulitzer-prize novel, “Tales from the South Pacific.” The R&H musical tells the story of clashing issues of race and acceptance in the WWII Era. One of the most biting and haunting songs, “You’ve Got To Be Taught” explains that hate and prejudice are taught at an early age. “South Pacific” challenges those norms when a young nurse, Nellie Forebush falls in love with a French patriot who lives in the tropical paradise. All is well until she seen his Tonkanise children from his deceased wife. Similarly, “South Pacific” tells the story of American serviceman, Joe Cable, who falls in love with a young Tonkanese girl only to question his learned prejudices against his heart-felt love.

Set against the WWII in the Pacific, the story displays so many truths that continue from the times of war. Many Vietnamese wives and children were left behind when American forces were withdrawn. The timeless story contain both light and heavy situations. But, like so many R&H musicals, “South Pacific” confronts issues that continue without resolution. Prejudices continue today.

According to the Theatre in the Park information, “Set in an island paradise during World War II, two parallel love stories are threatened by the dangers of prejudice and war. Nellie, a spunky nurse (Madeline Clem) from Arkansas, falls in love with a mature French planter, Emile (Paul Secor Morel). Nellie learns that the mother of his children (Julia Balino & Alex Cross) was an island native and, unable to turn her back on the prejudices with which she was raised, refuses Emile’s proposal of marriage. Meanwhile, the strapping Lt. Joe Cable (Jon Rizzo) denies himself the fulfillment of a future with an innocent Tonkinese girl (Ivy Huang) with whom he’s fallen in love out of the same fears that haunt Nellie.

“When Emile is recruited to accompany Joe on a dangerous mission that claims Joe’s life, Nellie realizes that life is too short not to seize her own chance for happiness, thus confronting and conquering her prejudices.”

The production is led by Madeleine Clem and Paul Morel as Nellie and Emile. The two could not be better matched. The scenes with them together are the strongest in the show. Their voices are clear and their delivery and stage presence strong for an outdoor venue as large as Theatre in the Park. Morel’s strong vocals and emotional deliveries make his solos stand out even more. His “Some Enchanted Evening” solo sends chills as his voice booms out the song. “This Nearly Was Mine,” though not as well known as other songs allowed Morel’s powerful baritone voice to send electricity through the audience. Clem, with the most songs, delivers them with charm of an Arkansas country girl with a sweetness that’s effervescent.

As for the secondary leads, Zenia Lee gives a poignant and touching “Bali-Hai” and fun, spirited “Happy Talk.” She’s funny as Bloody Mary should be and a fierce competitor for Luther Billis. Though small in stature, Lee commands the stage whenever Bloody Mary appears. She projects her character throughout the large venue. Jon Rizzo, as Lt. Joe Cable, sings one of the love ballads, “Younger than Springtime,” with force, yet tenderness. His conflicted feelings about Liat, the Tonkanese daughter of Bloody Mary, resonate with hope and longing for that one true love. His vocal performance again gives the deep meaning to “South Pacific” when he sings “You’ve Got to be Taught,” the crux of the main conflict of race and mixed marriages. Rizzo’s clear and powerful voice will be remembered. He could sing any male romantic lead in a musical. The comedy in this piece rests mostly on the broad shoulders of Daniel Verschelden, who portrays Luther Billis. Verschelden lets go with his comedic timing and his character’s funny attitude, especially the “Honey Bun” number. He’s so funny and the audience appreciated his characterization. Verschelden shines in the featured actor slot. He gave Luther Billis humor and swagger.

“South Pacific” contains some of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most recognizable numbers, including: “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali-Hai,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger That Springtime,” “A Wonderful Guy,” and the lesser know but social commentary that was as now as then, “You’ve Got To Be Taught.” Even though South Pacific made its Broadway debut in the 1950s and brings focus on social differences, class differences, and obstacles of second marriages, step-children, social acceptance, the topics confronted by R&H remain relevant today, sadly.

Theatre in the Park did a commendable job of producing this classic musical love story. The costumes, the choreography, the sets, the orchestra, the lighting, the sound, the hair, the makeup, the properties–all combined to create a beautiful production of a difficult show to stage. The show contains many scene changes and requires lots of creativity to flow smoothly. That said, for an amateur production, Theatre in the Park performed well. So far, Theatre in the Park delivered two strong productions this season. Give credit for the onstage and behind the scenes work to director Julie Ewing who envisioned this production. The musical direction was flawlessly created by Marsha Canady. Together they created a carefully-crafted production.

The cast for “South Pacific” is: Ensign Nellie Forbush, Madeline Clem; Emile de Bucque, Paul Morel; Ngana, Julia Balino; Jerome, Alex Cross; Henry/Ensemble, Bob Ehler; Bloody Mary, Zenia Lee; Liat, Ivy Huang;Bloody Mary’s Assistants, Katarina Romero-Vega and Janiel Balino; Luther Billis, Daniel Verschelden; Stewpot, Jacob Thomas; Professor, Zach Greer; Lt. Joseph Cable, USMC, Jon Rizzo; Captain George Brackett, USN, Don Leonard; Commander William Harbison, USN, David Kepper.

The ensemble members are: Lt. Buzz Adams, Paul McArdle; Yeomen Herbert Quale, Wyatt Walberg; Radio Operator Bob McCaffrey, Ryan Russell; Sebee Morton Wise, Jonathan Arnold, Seabee Richard West, Zachery Russell; Seabee Johnny Noonan, Joel Walley; Seabee Billy Whitmore, Mark McNeal; Seaman Tom O’Brien, Charlie Meacham; Seaman James Hayes, Nathan Bills; Sailor Kenneth Johnson, Stephen Holbert; Petty Officer Hamilton Steves, Donnie Miller; Seaman Thomas Hassinger, Andrew Rovello; Lt. Eustis Carmichael, Tom Heathcote; Lt. Genevieve Marshall, Joy Richardson; Ensign Dinah Marshall, Katie Vereen; Ensign Janet MacGregor, Ann Eddy; Ensign Connie Walewska, Andrea Bates; Ensign Sue Yaeger, Natalie Crane; Ensign Cora MacRae, Klarissa Sheffield; Ensign Lisa Minelli, Lakin Allen.

Production Staff: Director, Julie Ewing; Musical Director/Conductor/Accompanist, Marsha Canaday; Choreographer, Carolyn Braverman; Assistant Choreographer, Katie Cronin; Costume Designer, Annette Cook; Props Designer, Cheryl Singers; Hair and Make-up Designer, John Hollan; Scenic Designer, Ben Kramer, Lighting Designer, Elizabeth Kennell; Sound Designer, Chase Roush; Stage Manager, Mitch Simmons; Asst. Stage Manager, Matt Pollock; Asst. Stage Manager, Katie Cronin.

The orchestra for “South Pacific” is: The orchestra for “South Pacific” is: Marsha Canady, conductor/musical director; Ashley Foster, violin; Tosh Watanabe, violin; Emily Winterberg, viola; Jessica Smith, cello; Cicily Mahan, harp/keyboard; Margaret Hempleman, flute, piccolo; Anne Sneller, oboe/English horn; Holly Hague, clarinet; Diane Karlus, clarinet; Danielle Mays, bassoon; Andrew Beckstron, trumpet; Cynthia Hartwell, trumpet; Andrew Rogers, trumpet; Lee Finch, trombone; Steve Constance, trombone; Jerry Old, horn; Dan Graham, horn; Paul Jolly, horn; Linda Finch, horn; Wesley Nelson, tuba; Frank Annecchini, bass; Issiah Sterling percussion; Blake Vignery, percussion.

“South Pacific” continues tonight, June 23 and opens for one more weekend Wed.-Sat. next week. Tickets begin at $8. Lawn chairs, blankets, coolers, picnic baskets welcome. Concessions available including pre-ordered boxes. Chairs are available to rent as well as new chairs in front of the master-sidewalk that replaced the low-profile chairs. For more information and to purchase advance tickets, go to the Theatre in the Park website.

Tags: “South Pacific” Theatre in the Park, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment

Images courtesy of Theatre in the Pak, Bob Compton Photography/Theatre, Bob Compton Photography/Theatre in the Park and Theatre in the Park

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