By Chad Nance
“I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.”
― James A. Michener, Tales of the South Pacific
South Pacific’s Overture came roaring in with its Bernard Hermann-like intensity under baton of Conductor James Allbritten, announcing to everyone at the Stevens Center that the 2014 Piedmont Opera season has begun. Their latest production of an American classic is thoughtful, entertaining to the last, and features several powerful performances by guests and Camel City’s own.
Shifting through motifs that are instantly recognizable, the Overture, like the rest of the music in the production, was a stirring stand out. The Winston-Salem Symphony provided a full orchestration for this South Pacific that swings when it needs to and handles the musical’s pathos and humor with equal aplomb. Robert Campbell, Anita Cariba, Brian French and the rest of the Symphony’s brass provided the propulsion while Helen Rifas’ work on the harp added a lush texture that underscored the romantic and surrealistic elements of Roger’s and Hammerstein’s evocative score. Kathryn Levy’s work on piccolo and flute accentuated the playfulness of the arrangement while the string section’s deft touch provided rich body and warmth. Handling the pop splendor to operatic heights, Conductor Allbritten and the Winston-Salem Symphony provided lift when needed and created a full and rich atmosphere for Rogers & Hammerstein’s complex themes and lyrical gymnastics.
When Rogers & Hammerstein labored to create South Pacific based on James Michener’s Pulitzer-prize winning masterpiece Tales from the South Pacific, they were clearly drawn to the narrative and dynamics of the writer’s masterwork. After the attack on Pearl Harbor was a time that saw American kids leaving places like Little Rock, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and factory towns like Winston-Salem then finding themselves caught in the monotony of paradise as they stayed on South Pacific atolls and islands waiting for the darkness of war to descend. War took kids out of their cloistered realities of home and neighborhood and plopped them down in an almost surreal tropical dreamland where time and space collapse under the weight of stunning landscape. Then allow them nearly unfettered contact with primitive native peoples and earlier colonial interlopers and it is no surprise that the experience might put a little zap on their heads. Roger’s & Hammerstein examined this reality in South Pacific while at the same time they provided a vibrant and funny text that barely keeps the darkness at bay while providing all of the entertainment that an audience could want.
North Carolina’s Jesse Darden delivered a tortured and graceful performance of Lt. Cable. The depth of Darden’s acting work requires the services of a quality psychiatrist more than those of a critic. His pallid tones (provided by make-up artist Martha Ruskai and her crew) coupled with his tortured body language and fine singing create a pivot point for which the serious questions have opened ended and insufficient answers. Darden takes Cable from a gung-ho Marine with a rigid posture to a man in the throws of malaria battling himself and his own dark heart as if every nerve were raw and in pain- torn between social convention and his longing for love and paradise personified as the Tonkinese girl named Liat played (in a dancing role) by Elizabeth Fowle.
It is Liat’s mother, Bloody Mary, who diverts Cable from his mission. Soprano Susan Neves’ performance in this legendary role is strong, seductive, and knowing. Bloody Mary is a pivotal role. She has to walk the line between pimp and loving mother focused on providing her beloved child with the best possible life. Neves handles Mary’s anger with wit and good cheer, clearly justifying her own actions because of the oppression and poverty thrust onto her and her people by French colonialist like Emile de Becque. When watching some of Mary’s more extreme behavior it is useful to note that in Michener’s book Bloody Mary has essentially been kept in slavery by Emile. Neves is able to play some of these shadows well through implication. She is also a powerful singer with a voice that projects clear and clean even when she is singing in an accent.
Branch Fields’ Emile is a strong and complicated anchor for the cast. His singing (again with an accent) resonates with restrained passion. His acting brings to mind Bogart in “Casablanca.” The world weariness is built into the character, but the excellent comic timing belong to Fields as a performer. Would a man who has lived on a tropical island for years be as stiff and mannered as Fields Emile? Perhaps, but it is one part of the production that feels a bit false. The moments in which Fields allows Emile’s restrained humor to shine through are among his best in the production. Fields also equips himself strongly on the musical’s signature song, Some Enchanted Evening. He takes an overly familiar number and injects it with technical skill and soul, bringing a strong and clear thunder to the song that feels both restrained and impassioned at once.
While Nellie and Lt. Cable represent America’s pampered, protected, and naïve youth of the time, Fields’ Emile has a world weariness about him. Even while Cable, Nellie, and the other young people are burning with a crusader’s flame, Emile knows better. He knows that whether it is the Americans or the Japanese there will be little difference in the outcome. Because of Emile’s shadowy past he has learned that even when the bully is defeated, the battle takes an equally damaging toll on the victor. His darkest fears would be realized in Nagasaki and in the air over Dresden in the closing days of the war. Michener and South Pacific’s creators were working in the years directly following World War II while its bloody reality was still fresh and free from “Greatest Generation” myth-making. Theirs is not a world made simply of heroes and villains, rather it is a sloppy world of human beings struggling between the light and the dark. Some win, some are beaten, and some lose their light in defeating the darkness. Even love is vulnerable to the whims and hatreds of humanity. If one looks at the creative output of those who survived WWII such as Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, George Orwell and filmmaker Sam Fuller it is clear that beneath the myth of a bright post-war world was a renewed sense of cynicism about the human condition.
As a character Nellie perfectly personifies this reality. She is at once open and hungry for experience and romance, but on the other hand she remains constricted and restrained by her own bigotries implanted in her as a child by her “hick” upbringing in the “sticks.” Mezzo Soprano Jennifer DeDominici gives the audience a Nellie that feels palatable. The reality she brings to Nellie and her relationship with a far more worldly and older man is well played. Her Southern accent comes and goes, but as a performer DeDominici overcomes that limitation by charming the audience with her humor and emotional commitment. Her singing and performance on Nellie’s reprise of Some Enchanted Evening following Emile and Cable leaving for their suicide mission is heartbreaking and emotionally raw. Rather than pummel the audience with brass and technical bravado, DeDominici wins them over with her honesty and sweetness. As a physical comedienne her Nellie shines in the Thanksgiving Show sequences and her performance of Honey Bun is suitably bawdy, but shines with a true innocence and grace.
The find of the Piedmont Opera’s production is Justin Bulla as Luther Billis. The RJ Reynolds High School theater teacher is the absolute heart and soul of this production. In truth the first scene at Emile’s home was shaky and felt awkwardly paced with both Fields and DeDominici still feeling their way around inside of Nellie and Emile. As soon as the Seabee chorus arrives, led by Bulla’s Billis, the stage comes alive as Bulla and Neves take control of the stage and the audience. Choreographer Gary Taylor (from Festival Ballet) is due much credit for keeping the performers moving in a way that conveys happy chaos, but still makes thematic sense and never devolves into true bedlam. Bulla plays his Billis (performed famously on stage and in film by the legendary Ray Walston) with a sense of camp and fun that is equal parts Sgt. Bilko and Quinton McHale. His blue-collar awareness and lampooning of class differences provide Billis with a realistic edge. Bulla’s physical comedy in the aforementioned Honey Bun number is priceless, brave, and easily one of the best pieces of acting in this South Pacific.
Also of special mention in the cast is Parkland High School chorus teacher Jonathan Sidden, whose paternal and gruff Captain Brackett is a brilliant turn and is the only other character besides Emile that truly seems to understand the score.
The technical crew deserves accolades as well. The sound design by Jason Romney is full and expansive. He and his crew rise to the occasion with the Thanksgiving show scene where their recreation of the monotones in period microphones. Rather than simply coming off as a stunt, however, the effect is worked in seamlessly and never steps on the live orchestration. Norman Coates’ lighting and Patrick Larsen’s scenic design shine in the Thanksgiving sequence, but Bloody Mary’s surreal seduction of Lt. Cable is absolutely stunning. The dreamlike atmosphere, accentuated by an early use of a scrim and the undulating purple and pink lighting makes Bali Ha’I a hauntingly real fever reverie.
From top to bottom the Piedmont Opera’s South Pacific is entertaining and intellectually satisfying. They ask the big questions about ethics, morality, and national identity in the face of the violent reality of war and at the same time allow the show to breathe, laugh, and percolate with the joy of performance. This first 2014 production is a moving and hilarious entertainment that works hard to give audiences what they come in out of the cold for. The Piedmont Opera is alive and open for business… and business is booming.
Editors Note: South Pacific is not for children. There are language, situations, and themes that will not be understood by the little ones. There are still shows for March 16th and the 18th. You can get more information and tickets from the Piedmont Opera HERE.