South Pacific at the Paper Mill Playhouse: Tales of a Time Long Past, Still Familiar

South Pacific

The well-acted if not exceptionally imaginative production of South Pacific, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through May 4th, boasts a number of similarities to the recent revival of that show at Lincoln Center — that esteemed production ran from 2008-2010 and won seven Tony Awards.

Most obviously is the presence of Loretta Ables Sayre, who played Bloody Mary in both that production and this one, and who, once again, delivers a hugely entertaining performance, especially during one of the score’s simplest yet cleverest numbers, “Happy Talk.”  There is also a magnificent turn by the actress portraying Nellie Forbush, the energetic, bigoted Navy nurse. The counterpart to 2008’s Kelli O’Hara (in her greatest performance) is Erin Mackey, who brings a new take to the role, enhancing Nellie’s Southern twang while cranking up the slightly nervous energy during some of the better dance numbers. Less impressively, the production also retains the scenic and costume designers of 2008’s production (Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber, respectively), whose work I didn’t especially enjoy even on Lincoln Center’s expansive stage and enjoy even less on the Paper Mill’s. But, most importantly, this South Pacific retains the beautiful, lilting, thoughtful score that became the touchstone of musical theater in the 1950s, and it holds up just as well in 2014 as it did in 2008.

Along with Ms. Mackey, who nearly steals the show, the greatest performances are those of Doug Carpenter, whose clear, beautiful, matinee-idol voice as Lt. Joseph Cable is a memorable highlight, and Tally Sessions, who wrings humor out of every line as Luther Billis, the Minderbinder-esque baths magnate of his navy base. As such, the greatest number in this version of the show by a long shot is the vastly underrated “Honey Bun,” which Ms. Mackey and Mr. Sessions sing together in drag. Since “Honey Bun” takes place in a musical within a musical, so to speak, it is during this number that the extravagant, exciting musicals the Paper Mill is more used to producing are allowed to shine through. South Pacific has a serious side, too, though. Mr. Carpenter’s version of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” the first song in a popular musical to address racism head-on, is a tour-de-force.

The elements of a classic musical imprint themselves in our collective consciousness, and no matter the production, the syncopated lustfulness of the sailors of the South Pacific in the immortal “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” will inspire the same joy.  Interestingly, the drive for copulation and the perception of the opposite sex as meat are crimes both genders are guilty of in this show —the ladies in “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” and “Honey Bun” and the gentlemen in…everything else. The South Pacific, it seems, is a lonely place.

There is nothing like South Pacific, in any form, at any time. It is a unique musical, and to see this production is to witness singularity.

 

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