Review: South Pacific by Georgetown Palace Theatre
by Michael Meigs
The Georgetown Palace Theatre has done it again. The production of South Pacific playing weekends through March, 2013, is energetic, polished and entertaining, a celebration of the classic 1949 musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s a reminder that at mid-century American musical theatre pioneered new directions in entertainment for a public newly aware of the world beyond Main Street, USA.
With their first collaboration Oklahoma! in 1943 Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II drew a symbolic picture of the home that Americans were then fighting a war for, including the banding together that excluded misfits such as poor Judd Fry. The post-World-War-II musical South Pacific, in contrast, is situated retrospectively at a low point in that conflict, showing sailors and Navy nurses sidelined in paradise, amusing themselves with shenanigans and camp entertainment while waiting to engage a distant and faceless enemy.
The musical numbers are stirring and delightful by turns. Many of them are still instantly recognizable from the opening chords of the live orchestra on an elevated platform hidden behind the backdrops: Some Enchanted Evening; I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair; Bali Hai; A Cockeyed Optimist; This Nearly Was Mine; and Younger than Springtime. The comic ensemble numbers are the carefree There Is Nothing Like A Dame and Honey Bun. Taken as a whole, the music of South Pacific constitutes in itself an extended chapter in the American songbook of popular music.
The high standards of the Palace and its extensive community support function as a virtuous cycle, attracting additional new talent to work with the regulars. Houston transplant Bob Beare appears at the Palace for the first time as the romantic lead, middle-aged French planter Emile de Becque. Beare’s smooth baritone is charged with feeling and his acting is subtle, appealing and nuanced.
Opposite him is Christine O’Connor Jean-Jacques, a singing and performing veteran of Disney shows and tours, relocated to Austin from Orlando just six months ago. Her character, Nurse Nelly Forbush, affectionately kidded by the other nurses as “Knucklehead Nelly,” is a post-ingénue romantic, an escapee from Arkansas eager to discover the wider world. Christine Jean-Jacques can sing and dance to beat the band, almost literally, and she sparkles in the setting of a female chorus of mostly familiar faces, including Martha Hurley, Suzanne Orzech, Jill Schneider, Jennifer Tucker and Samantha Watson.
Comic characters keep the performance from lapsing into sentimentalism. Eric Freisinger – relocated to Round Rock from Corpus Christi just last year – does a deftly amusing portrayal of the hustling non-com wheeler-dealer Luther Billis, complete with an authentic-sounding East Coast accent.
Michelle Haché’s gorgeous soprano voice gives Bloody Mary, Luther’s Polynesian equivalent, some decidedly elegant moments. Haché, a B. Iden Payne award winner also appearing at the Palace for the first time, gleefully balances them with clowning, Mary’s irked denunciations of “stingy bastards!” and her anxiety in Act II at the fate of her prospective son-in-law Lt. Joe Cable (Ismael Soto III, quietly intent and focused amid all of the cavorting).
Barb Jernigan’s textured backdrops and an ingenious projected video effect for the ocean done by Rich Simms deserve special recognition.
Body microphones for the cast functioned well on opening weekend. Rodd Simonson’s fingers must have been flying across the sound console to coordinate this large cast. I’d have liked to have seen a better solution of positioning Nelly’s sound transmitter for the shower scene. Costuming also needed additional attention to bra control for her backless dress for the party at Emile’s residence at the end of Act One.
In their video discussion with Austin Live Theatre the two leads were enthusiastic about the artistic staff – director Ron Watson, musical director Justin Langford and choreographer Jesse Smart, all of them Palace veterans, and they praised the eight-person show band led by Lannes Hilboldt. Live accompaniment has its risks, but they carried it off with style.
South Pacific is a favorite of mine, and I’m glad to see it produced with such confident élan. This Rodgers and Hammerstein vehicle gave me my very first theatre experience for a short run on a windswept platform in a high school football stadium. As one of the sailors in There Is Nothing Like A Dame, I was graced with the one and only sung line of my dubious stage career (“. . . or as faithful as a bird dog -- ”).
South Pacific has survived many another community or school production and revival, including a Lincoln Center restaging in 2008 that ran for almost a thousand performances.
Because this is community theatre, the cast doesn’t have the trim and glowing physical uniformity and youth of a regional touring company. I like that. I identify much more readily with an ensemble including members who probably wouldn't have met military standards for age or physical condition even in early wartime. Much of the ensemble is made up of folks just like us – who happen to have been blessed with fine singing voices and proximity to the Palace, queen of musical theatre in Central Texas.
This show is running full, with additional Saturday matinees announced for March 9, 16 and 23. Enjoy it, and support the Georgetown Palace!
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February 22 - March 24, 2013
810 South Austin Avenue
Georgetown, TX, 78626