Review: 70 years later, 'South Pacific' still resonates
Theatre in the Grove's 2019-2020 season celebrates 50 years of ambitious community theater in Forest Grove with a powerful combination of shows old and new, beginning with the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "South Pacific."
It's a huge undertaking — a three-hour show with 27 cast members plus a 14-piece orchestra — under the experienced guidance of director Zachary Centers and musical director Michelle Bahr, both long-time TITG veterans. The result is a show that offers some spectacular performances, strong vocal ensemble work and really nice choreography, but is still a somewhat uneven production.
On one level, "South Pacific" is a tale of heroism and sacrifice on a small Pacific island group during World War II. Two brave men, one a young Marine and the other an expatriate French planter, risk their lives to hide on a deserted island and report Japanese military activity to a nearby U.S. naval base.
The real story, and the one that has made the story an indelible classic, is the courage of its authors in boldly confronting racial intolerance in a major musical — in 1949, when the show opened on Broadway, much of the American public was not perceived to be ready for a story that openly confronted the racism so endemic in our society.
It is the emotional journey of two young white GIs overcoming their cultural biases against interracial relationships that engages the audience — we may be charmed by the show's abundant humor, but we are moved by the way love allows Little Rock hick Nellie Forbush and Philadelphia Main Liner Joe Cable to move beyond their ethnocentric backgrounds. Comic numbers like "Honey Bun" and "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and romantic numbers like "Some Enchanted Evening" are the show's big blockbusters, but it is the quiet "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" that carries the essential message of South Pacific.
The show is anchored by its amazing female lead, Alison Luey, whose Nellie Forbush is a nonstop delight from curtain to curtain. Luey can out-sing, out-dance, even out-giggle any Forbush I've ever seen, and her presence on the stage makes the whole experience worthwhile.
Another real showstopper is area newcomer Andie Moreno, an opera singer whose larger-than-life Bloody Mary is hilarious, heartbreaking, and utterly fierce. Her bio indicates that this is her first major role in a musical — I find this hard to believe, and Los Angeles' loss is definitely our gain.
TITG veteran performer Dan Bahr is delightfully uninhibited as the scheming, outlandish Seabee Luther Billis; he leads the men's chorus in a rousing version of "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and lets it all hang out with abandon,
displaying impressive abdominal control, during "Honey Bun."
Although his performance rarely matches that of his love interest, Luey, Seth Yohnka handles the challenging vocals of Emile de Becque nicely, especially the poignant "This Nearly Was Mine."
As Lieutenant Cable, Robert Altieri achieves believable chemistry with a genuinely lovely Kathleen Shew (Liat), but some of the songs are a bit out of his vocal range, forcing him to hold back in his key numbers. Both the men's and women's ensemble work is superb — fun, boisterous, embracing both the vocals and Jeananne Kelsey's whimsical choreography and repeatedly bringing the show to life.
Even it it's not a perfect production, "South Pacific" is a perfect way for Theatre in the Grove to kick off their 50th season — big, bold, rooted firmly in the past but still relevant today, and willing to tackle any challenge, much like the troupe that presents it. Local audiences are fortunate to have such a remarkable resource in their community, and they should turn out in droves to celebrate both the show and the dedicated folks who bring it to them.
"South Pacific" is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Ave. in Forest Grove, through Oct. 27, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
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