Theatre Review: ‘South Pacific’ at City Springs Theatre Company

City Springs Theatre Company’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” performed at the beautiful new 1,070-seat Byers Theatre, is one of those shows that one feels truly privileged to have seen. It runs through March 17, and I’d like to urge any real fan of musical theatre to try to get a ticket; it’s close to selling out, so I wouldn’t delay.

City Springs has spared no expense in making this a memorable experience: Broadway’s wonderful Baayork Lee, whom I was fortunate enough to see in the original cast of “A Chorus Line,” is the director and choreographer. Brandt Blocker, the Artistic Director and Conductor, has assembled a 25-piece orchestra that will have you blissed out before the gorgeous overture is finished.

Many will know that “South Pacific” is a treasure of American musical theatre; it premiered on Broadway in 1949; its portrayal of Americans stationed in a faraway culture in wartime is, sadly, as relevant today as when it first thrilled audiences four years after the end of World War II. It ran for years; then, the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization did not allow a Broadway revival until the 2008 Lincoln Center production which I was fortunate enough to see. This Pulitzer Prize-winning, deeply felt musical drama, not surprisingly, won a Tony for Best Musical Revival. It was heavenly.

Happily, so is City Spring’s production. The songs are supremely romantic: “Some Enchanted Evening,” Wonderful Guy,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” but also fun: “Bloody Mary,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Honey Bun,” “I’m Gonna Wash Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” You may have forgotten how war and racism play a important part here; the show seems strangely contemporary.

The performers are close to perfection: Broadway’s William Michals and Kristine Reese play leading parts of Emile de Becque, the French planter who is searching for his own paradise; and Ensign Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse from Little Rock whose romance with de Becque runs aground when she learns of his children with a Polynesian woman (now deceased). Nellie’s opening number (“the girl’s first song,” showbiz folks call it) is the irresistible “A Cockeyed Optimist.” You love Nellie from this moment on; and Ms. Reese’s charm and crystalline voice are magnetic.

Speaking of lush voices, Mr. Michals’ gorgeous baritone is magnificent. His rendition of “This Nearly Was Mine,” when Emile thinks he has lost Nellie, brings tears to the eyes and stops the show.

And there’s more! Yvonne Strumecki’s portrayal of Bloody Mary, an entrepreneurial islander and mother of Liat (the beautiful Cassandra Hlong), sings “Bali Ha’i” to Lt. Joe Cable (Maxim Gukhman) and other sailors. This may be the most beautiful, haunting song of yearning for “your own special island,” whatever that is to you, in all of American theatre. Ms. Strumecki is superb.

“South Pacific” keeps topping itself. Soon Mr. Gukhman’s Cable sings the sublime “Younger Than Springtime,” a song that has an unearthly beauty. (Note: Broadway’s original Nellie, Mary Martin, always said that this was her favorite song; since she didn’t get to sing it in the show, she’d constantly hum it to herself backstage.) The dashing Mr. Gukhman will not disappoint, either as actor or singer. This is true of the entire cast.

Other standouts include Chris Saltalamacchio’s Billis, Haden Rider’s Stewpot, JD Myers’ Professor, Bart Hansard’s Captain Brackett, and Steve Hudson’s Commander Harbison. And there are others; they are all in the program. Michael Yeargan’s scenic design; Mike Wood’s lighting design: thank you.

Ms. Lee’s direction has obviously inspired this talented cast. Judy Cole is the Music Director. The entire show is adapted by James A. Michener’s novel “Tales of the South Pacific.” I wish I could give credit to every person involved in the show. The beauty of “South Pacific” is largely ineffable. This production will become a legend; I hope you can see it.

For more information, visit cityspringstheatre.com.

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