“South Pacific” at Paper Mill Playhouse was terrific

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Scene from "South Pacific" at Paper Mill PlayhouseThe Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn brought us a ripping good production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” Based upon the collected stories of James A. Michener, “Tales of the South Pacific,” the musical introduces us to the young men and women from small towns and cities around the United States in the 1940s.

"South Pacific" at Paper Mill PlayhouseThe cast is thrown together in the hot, humid tropics of the Pacific during the Second World War waiting for something to happen. Michener won a Pulitzer Prize for the novel. Hammerstein and Josh Logan wrote the musical book.

We first meet Ensign Nellie Forbush (Erin Mackey). She has spent the day as the guest of wealthy plantation owner Emile de Becque (Mike McGowan), who met her at a dance and has only known her for a few weeks. Being wartime, and M. de Becque being an “elderly” man with “little time left” (he’s said to be all of 44), the planter wastes no time telling Ensign Forbush (“a hick from the sticks”) that he loves her.

Back at the base, we meet the cast of characters, which include sailors and the local black market connection, Bloody Mary (Loretta Ables Sayre). The story goes off from there to plot twists both expected (and a few unexpected).

Scenes from "South Pacific" at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.guysMs. Mackey, Mr. McGowan, and Ms. Ables Sayre have all distinguished themselves on the stage, and are great performers. Loretta Ables Sayres earned a Tony nomination for the role when she performed it in New York. Hers is a particularly interesting story. A native of Hawaii, she auditioned for the role and never expected to get it, since Hawaii is not known as a direct route to Broadway. She nearly didn’t go to the audition, but her husband warned her that it might be her only chance. The rest was the stuff of theatre legend. She secured the part and was nominated for a Tony award for her role as Bloody Mary. She reprises her role here, and hers is a beautiful, nuanced performance.

Outstanding supporting roles were realized by Tally Sessions (Luther Billis), Doug Carpenter (the handsome Lieutenant Joseph Cable), Ryan Andes (an especially tall and sexy Stewpot), Scott Anthony Joy (an appropriately nerdy Professor), and the ensemble of sexy, shirtless men who cavorted vibrantly across the stage. Stage excitement was generated by their physical excellence and by the lively choreography by Ralph Perkins.

Looking at the pit, I saw what appeared to be a youngster with duck-down hair as the musical director. Brad Haak conducted the evening’s music superbly, with wit, conviction, energy and flair. Even though he appeared to be a teenager, he does have many Broadway and touring company credits to his name. I hope to see him at back at Paper Mill Playhouse soon.

Having an excellent conductor in the pit, with such fine singing actors, made the classic songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” even more enjoyable. Rob Ruggiero directed expertly.

Grease will be next at Paper Mill Playhouse, May 28-June 29. For more info visit www.papermill.org/shows-tickets.html