“South Pacific” A Great American Musical

Northeast Florida Conservatory Theatre Review

Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom [email protected]

Jacksonville’s Northeast Florida Conservatory Theatre celebrated its first year of presenting the greatest American Musicals with the groundbreaking classic “South Pacific,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, with performances staged during November 19 – 22, 2015.

The musical is based on “Tales of the South Pacific,” a collection of short stories written by James Michener based on his wartime experiences. The book, published in 1947, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year. The musical adaptation, which opened in 1949, ran for 1,925 performances and also won a Pulitzer Prize, along with ten Tony Awards. While well received critically, it was also perceived as somewhat controversial because it dealt with racism.

sp01“South Pacific” is filled with memorable hit song after hit song, songs we all know and love, that include “Some Enchanted Evening,” the haunting “Bali Ha’i,” the hilarious “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and the moving “This Nearly Was Mine.”

The story takes place on a small South Pacific island where Nellie Forbush, a US Navy nurse falls in love, against her better judgment, with Emile De Becque, an expatriate French planter. Nellie, as played by Erin Barnes, is an attractive “hick” from Arkansas with a lot of charm and grace and she can sure belt out the songs.

Starring as the Frenchman is Matt Barnes, Erin’s real life husband. We previously saw this duo on stage last season as the leads in “The Addams Family” at Orange Park Community Theatre. As Emile, Matt gives a winning performance, using his resonate voice to sing those marvelous songs, and portraying a rounded portrait of the character’s hopes, dreams, and courage.

A secondary romantic plot involves the young and handsome Lt. Joseph Cable (Evan Bowan), who has come to the island intent on spying on Japanese ship movements. Cable is befriended by Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese woman who is a trinket merchant. She sets him up with her daughter Liat (Kiana Soriano), hoping they will fall in love and marry. While they do fall in love, there is no happy ending here: Liat is a beautiful girl but in Cable’s eyes, her ethnic origin is an insurmountable obstacle to a life together. In Act II, Mr. Bowan sings one of the most poignant numbers in the show, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” a reference to the cultural origin of racial prejudice.

This show is not all seriousness, there a lot of humor. Bloody Mary, in a marvelously vivid performance by Jennifer O’Brien, provides a lot of it as she bargains with the sailors while selling local products that include grass skirts, boar teeth, and shrunken heads.

Then there is the very funny, artful, scheming, and brash sailor Luther Billis (Justin Reynolds), and his equally zany shipmates: Josh Katzman (Stewpot), Jack Myers (Professor), Colin Harden (Abner), and Will Cook (Yeoman Quale), who blew the audience away with a wild rendition of “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”  As Billis, Reynolds also sings the hilarious “Honey Bun” in Act II in a duet with Nellie; he wears a grass skirt and a coconut shell bra. This too was a real crowd favorite.

Veteran actor Leonard Alterman is perfectly cast as Capt. George Brackett, the commanding officer, who is also affectionately known as “Old Iron Belly.” Several humorous moments arise during discussions between Brackett and staff members Cmdr. Harbison (Andy Thompson) and Lt. Buzz Adams (Richard Chapman). When Mr. Alterman is not fighting the war as Brackett, he retreats to the orchestra and plays clarinet.

Director Richard Dickson could not have cast the Navy nurses any better. Wow, they were terrific and talented! Appearing as nurses and then doubling back with interesting costumes as natives on Bali Ha’i were Rhoda London, Holly Silvia, Bailey Myers, Samantha Eigenmann, Laura Hassert, Stephanie Natter, and Jodie Jernigan.

Rounding out the cast were Maya Soriano as Ngana and Conner Henry as Jerome; the widowed De Becque’s children from his marriage to a Polynesian woman. Their rendition of the popular song “Dites – Moi” was a winning one. Dan Goodman appears as the radio operator. And In a bit of inspired casting, Director Dickson cast Joe Hapi as his house servant. Mr. Hapi, who now lives in Jacksonville, is a native Moari Polynesian from New Zealand, and was picture perfect for the role.

Rarely do you find an orchestra as large as fifteen members, but this is a conservatory and music is the name of their game, they offer all kinds of musical instruction all year around. The performance by these very talented musicians was rendered expertly, with Artistic Director Richard Dickson as Musical Director and on piano.

The set included three artificial palms trees, several sand dunes, and a view of the mystic Bali Ha’i in the background. Set pieces were brought on and off for various scenes.

Magical choreography by Roxanna Lewis included energetic dances in what looked like an incredibly small space. Stage Direction was by Laura Adkison, Technical Direction by Justin Reynolds.

This production thoroughly engaged the audience. We noted that half of the actors had been in other NFC shows, as Founder and Artistic Director Richard Dickson is discovering and attracting more and more of our excellent local musical theatre performers and appreciative audiences, who obviously love American musical theatre classics.

Next up for NFC will be “Oklahoma” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in 2016. The conservatory, located on San Jose Boulevard in Jacksonville’s Mandarin area, offers a number of musically oriented programs, which includes private instruction, as well as opportunities for non-students to participate in ensembles and a community band. For additional information about programs, upcoming auditions, and performance dates, visit nfconservatory.org or call (904) 374-8639.

Thanks go to NFC for a wonderful two hours of one the best musicals from the past.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.