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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Singers, ensemble nail a Broadway classic

Maddie Franke, Sarah Stevens and Maria Buchannan perform in 'South Pacific.' [Photo: Scott Treadway/Treadshots] Maddie Franke, Sarah Stevens and Maria Buchannan perform in 'South Pacific.' [Photo: Scott Treadway/Treadshots]

Household names since the ’40s for anyone who loves Broadway, musicals and theater in general, Rodgers and Hammerstein produced some of the most well-known plays to this day — “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music” remaining two of their most famous. Premiering on Broadway in 1949, “South Pacific” was no less popular. Theater patrons filled the seats for all 1,925 performances.

A common theme for the composer/lyricist duo was the blending of comedy and drama to articulate a political or social issue. They adorn the message in song and dance, wit and one-liners, and thus make their point inoffensively. “South Pacific” follows the trend, tackling racism in a dizzying display of spinning skirts, high-kicks, intricate scenery and songs so catchy the audience can’t help but be engrossed from the start. The Flat Rock Playhouse’s production, directed by Lisa K. Bryant and choreographed by Matthew Glover, is every bit as dazzling as this masterpiece deserves.
From the opening curtain, the Playhouse’s well-designed Mainstage is on full display, all assets in use at once to establish the setting: Hawaii during World War II. The stage’s generous depth and layers of rotating floor allow characters to spin on and off between bamboo curtains of various distances, creating the organized hubbub of an American Naval base. The curtains serve as both screen for the projection of real film from the war, and see-through divisions of various cameos. The lighting is to credit here, alternating between up and down-stage to draw focus where needed. All set to a triumphant, vibrant score that gives militant sound bites the appropriate weight. After all, this is war.
A fight that seems far away with the very first scene. The transition from black and white footage of bombs falling to the sound of trumpets, to a Frenchman’s peaceful tropical paradise is swift. Screens disappear into the wings while a sunny flower-adorned patio overlooking the sea rotates into place. The contrast in mood is swift and stark. A dramatic element used often in this fast-paced, musical dramedy. The swarm of military personnel is replaced with two children holding hands with their care-givers, dancing and singing in a simple circle.
This innocent dance proves significant over the course of the play. Three times the children repeat their French rhyme, and the various protagonists who join them perfectly encapsulates the characters’ arcs, and the overall message of the script: Racism is taught, and can be untaught.
“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” was a controversial song when “South Pacific” first grabbed Broadway. Lieutenant Cable, solidly played by Kevin Hack, has an epiphany: Prejudice against anyone of color isn’t born, isn’t inherent. It’s learned at a young age from parents and community. An accusation audience members sometimes struggle to swallow, despite the heartfelt delivery.
Other songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, however, became undisputed hits. Sarah Stevens convincingly embodies the main character, Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, including Nellie’s numbers. “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair,” a fun and hard-to-shake melody, was so popular it was turned into a shampoo jingle in the 1970s. Stevens’ clear and robust voice sweeps viewers away, almost in spite of her petite frame, mirroring her character’s large personality.
Andrew O’Shanick, cast as the Frenchman Emile De Becque, cannot be overlooked when it comes to vocal chops. Crooning to his love interest, Nellie, O’Shanick repeatedly nails a note that seems impossibly high. His ability, as well, to maintain a consistent French accent when both acting and singing is a feat in itself. Emile and Nellie’s duets have chemistry because two contrasting characters are played by two equally wonderful singers.
For those who saw “Proposals,” the theater’s last mainstage performance, one character will stand out despite having a supporting role. Brendan Malafronte is back, this time playing Stew Pot, a boxy and boisterous “tough-guy.” Malafronte’s versatility, especially in body language, is truly impressive. From slick, loose Vinnie to a young seaman with something to prove, his ability to transform his frame to fit a character will make him easy to spot. Also helpful to ticket holders: his shirt sloppily says. . . “Stew Pot.”
The most memorable character, perhaps, is Bloody Mary. Embodied by Yvonne Strumecki, Bloody Mary is a native of the islands, and her fiery will to turn a profit despite the war and to marry her daughter off properly overcomes her comedic English pronunciations to make her a fierce personality. When Strumecki sings the famous “Bali Ha’l” with mesmerizing movements, the audience listens with awe and respect.
The entire ensemble are professionals who know how to play with emotion, who move with purpose, or flip acrobatically, or perform the popular dances of the forties with precision. Whether chaotic or coordinated, a wild pack of sailors or an in-sync line of show-girls, Bryant, Glover and every member of the large ensemble deserves praise for honoring a classic by delivering an unmissable performance.

 

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“South Pacific” runs through July 6. Performances are 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For tickets call 828-693-0731 or visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org.