Monday, July 6, 2015

Theater Review: South Pacific -- Ivoryton Playhouse

Adrianne Hick and David Pittsinger. Photo by Roger Williams
A New Perspective on an Old Classic Results in Relevant Themes
By Lauren Yarger
American bass-baritone David Pittsinger, who starred as Emile de Becque in the acclaimed production of South Pacific at Lincoln Center in New York, reprises the role at Ivoryton Playhouse, joined by his wife, Patricia Shulman, who stars as sassy, souvenir-selling Bloody Mary.

Pittsinger, who has sung on opera and concert stages in Vienna, Salzburg, Brussels, Paris, Tanglewood, Pesaro, New York, Santa Fe, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and San Francisco, thrills with his goosebump-triggering renditions of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” Just those songs alone are worth the price of the ticket.

A Connecticut native and graduate of UCONN and the Yale School of Music, Pittsinger received the University of Connecticut School of Fine Arts Alumni Award in 2006. Shulman began her career with the great Mozart repertoire, performing Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni) and Contessa Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro) at the Metropolitan Opera and has performed at most of the great opera houses throughout Europe and the United States.
The couple resides in Essex, CT.

Besides looking forward to hearing Pittsinger sing, I decided to approach this production of South Pacific a little differently. After all, it is a 65-year-old musical set in World War II and the afore-mentioned revival at Lincoln Center, directed by Bartlett Sher was thrilling and the definitive staging of the classic, in my opinion, so why see another?

I decided to pretend that I never had seen the show, that I hadn’t been singing some of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein songs most of my life and to see whether the premise, which never really made sense to me, might. As a young child I hadn’t really understood why Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (Adrianne Hicks) couldn’t be with her love, French plantation owner Emile.

“But what difference does it make?” I asked, when my mother explained that Nellie had issues with people of color. She nixes any idea of marrying Emile when she discovers that he has two non-white children, Ngana (the role is shared by Kaiya Colguhoun and Avital Goldberg-Curran) and Jerome (Dylan Huber) from a previous relationship with an island woman. This might have been an  issue during World War II, but it just didn’t seem relevant to me in the '70s.

There is a lot of  backwards thinking in the book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan (who won the Pulitzer Prize for their adaptation of James Mitchner’s “Tales of the South Pacific” which won a Pulitzer itself.) There are words like “colored,” “dames,” broads” and “Japs,” which would have been normal back in 1949.

Nellie’s friend, Lt. Joseph Cable (Peter Carrier) also deals with prejudice when he falls in love with Bloody Mary’s daughter, Liat  (Annelise Cepero), but can’t marry her for fear of what his family will think.

Looking at the musical with fresh eyes, I was shocked to realize just how relevant it is, even more than it seemed in 2008-2010 when the revival ran at Lincoln Center. Just weeks ago, members of a black church in Charleston, SC were murdered by a white man with ties to a white supremacist group and the Confederate flag. Overwhelming pressure for the state to sever its relationship with the flag, a symbol to many of slavery and black oppression, brought race relations front and center on a national stage. 

Many have called for the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol. Walmart stopped selling merchandise bearing the flag’s image and even reruns of “The Dukes of Hazard” were pulled from TV. Suddenly Nellie’s concerns about race aren’t as out-of-date as we’d like them to be. The song “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” is chilling.

Though I was considering the musical from a fresh perspective, surprisingly, many of the audience members actually appeared to be seeing it for the first time. There were gasps at what I thought were universally known plot turns and genuine laughter at Bloody Mary’s dealings with the sailors as well as at the antics of sailor Luther Billis (William Shelby), who seeks a way to get over to nearby island Bali Ha’i where native women have been relocated while American troops try to get a handle on nearby Japanese war activity. Heading the effort are Captain George Brackett (R. Bruce Connelly) and Cmdr. William Harbison (Tom Libonate).

I am going to be sparse on more plot details. Either you have seen it a ton of times like me and you should pretend you haven’t, or I don’t want to give spoilers for you newbies. Directed and choreographed by David Edwards, the action takes place on a military base in the South Pacific and in Emile’s hilltop plantation home. Simple sets, excellently lighted by Marcus Abbott,  are designed by Daniel Nischan. Lenore Grunko designs the military and native garb with Joel Silvestro designing hair and wigs. 

There are a few problems unique to this production. The pace is too slow and the choreography doesn’t appear natural. I didn’t buy that Nellie was floating around because she was “In love with a wonderful Guy.” She obviously just moves through choreography steps. Also disappointing, she doesn’t really “Wash That Man Right Out of Her Hair,” since only a few drops of water get splashed around. Even approaching with new eyes, I would have expected some real shampoo action. That’s what makes this number so fun.

The male and female choruses sing with gusto, accompanied by an eight-person band, under the music direction of Michael McAssey. The overture and other instrumental parts are weak for the score, which is best presented by a full orchestra,

But don’t let these things trip you up (or keep you from making a trip to Ivoryton). Go hear Pittsinger, Enjoy Schuman. And ponder how much (or perhaps sadly, how little) our attitudes toward race in this country have changed in the last 65 years.

South Pacific makes waves through July 26 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Perfromances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Additional matinee performances are at 2 pm on Thursday July 16, Saturday, July 18 and Saturday,  July 25. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30, Friday and Saturday at 8. Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children. (860) 767-7318; www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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