One enchanted evening

Walnut Street Theatre presents Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific’

3 minute read
Alison T. Chi and Ben Michael getting that Bali high. (Photo by Mark Garvin)
Alison T. Chi and Ben Michael getting that Bali high. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and 10 Tony Awards, and set box office records when it opened in 1949. Yet South Pacific was not revived in New York until 2008 at Lincoln Center, and it was never staged at the Walnut Street Theatre, known for its productions of mainstream musicals — until just now.

Rightly lauded as a classic of American musical theater, I’d go farther and say it’s the best exemplar of that genre: a well-balanced amalgam of romance, drama and comedy on a subject contrasting America’s greatest triumph, World War II, and one of America’s biggest problems, racial prejudice.

A complicated relationship

A naval lieutenant and a middle-aged French plantation owner go on a mission to beat “the Japs.” The lieutenant has fallen in love with a Polynesian girl but refuses to marry her because it would upset his Philadelphia Main Line family and friends, while the planter’s fiancee, Army nurse Nellie Forbush, from Little Rock, Arkansas, breaks off their relationship when she learns he has two children whose late mother was a “colored” woman.

How to explain this long neglect? Veterans of World War II went back to civilian life and chose to put wartime stories, both real and fictional, behind them. Producers recognized this “silent generation” syndrome and avoided South Pacific because of that subject matter.

Then, too, the lead male part of Emile de Becque was considered impossible to cast. Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza established an unmatchable image of foreign exoticism and elderly sexuality, and he had a voice that was profound in its bass register while beautifully encompassing high notes.

Pitch perfect

The Lincoln Center production and its touring company used Met Opera basses Paolo Szot and David Pittsinger. At the Walnut, Paul Schoeffler's Emile is a baritone with Broadway credits as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast and Hook in Peter Pan, who has solidly filled lead roles at the Walnut in Man of La Mancha and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He had all the notes for his ballads “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” and delivered them with ringing tones, although lacking his predecessors’ glamour.

Kate Fahrner's Nellie became the center of this production. This is altogether fitting since she is the character who undergoes real change, from prejudice to acceptance. Fahrner’s “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” were highlights. Except for Reba McIntyre in a 1999 50th-anniversary concert performance at Carnegie Hall, she’s the only Nellie I’ve ever seen who spoke with a Southern accent (as Nellie should).

Ben Michael’s Lieutenant Cable was perfect in looks and voice. He belted “Younger Than Springtime” as well as I’ve ever heard it and was touching as the confused Philadelphian far from home.

Soldiers, nurses and Seabees were all superb under Charles Abbott’s direction and Michelle Gaudette’s choreography, especially in the raucous “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.” A powerful cast included stalwarts such as Jeffrey Coon, Ben Dibble, and Jennie Eisenhower in supporting roles.

The lonely island

John Daniels, the Walnut’s new musical director, created surprisingly satisfying orchestral colors with a mere 11-person pit band. Robert Andrew Kovach’s set provided the foliage and palm trees to make us feel we were on a tropical island, while Mary Folino’s costume design was just right for the place and period.

Fran Prisco was a hilarious Luther Billis, a Seabee with numerous schemes to beat the system. Lori Tan Chinn made a comic figure of Bloody Mary, the enterprising Polynesian businesswoman. However, Mary’s efforts to marry her daughter Liat to Cable seemed more like pimping, as the actress, Allison T. Chi, appeared extremely young. This was in keeping with the James Michener novel on which the musical is based.

Chinn encapsulated the show’s theme when she sang: “Most people live on a lonely island.” The song title, of course, is “Bali Ha’i” but Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric encompassed much more than that one place. This cast and ensemble gave a tightly paced, spirited presentation that recaptured the excitement and passion of the original.

What, When, Where

South Pacific. Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan. Charles Abbott directed. Through Oct. 23, 2016 at the Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Sts. (215) 574-3550 or

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