I’m often wowed by the way Dan Pessano of Good Company Players can breathe new, exciting life into classic musicals. His “The Sound of Music” in 2012 was a stunner. And GCP’s latest production, “South Pacific,” is another example of Pessano’s directing prowess. He takes a landmark title in American musical-theater history and gives it a brisk and loving spin.
A solid cast, spiffy production values and a punchy sense of self-confidence help make this one a winner — both for first-timers and people who are seeing the show for the umpteenth time.
The songs by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein are a key selling point of any production of “South Pacific,” of course. Such memorable tunes as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Happy Talk” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” seem to effortlessly parade by. Key to any good production, however, is making those songs feel as if they’re an organic part of the play itself, and for that the acting and direction has to shine.
I saw the show in the second weekend of its run, and I was impressed to varying degrees with all the principals. As Nellie Forbush, the young Navy nurse stationed on a small South Pacific island during World War II, the young Logan Carnation (a student at Clovis North High School) stands out beyond her years.
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Her vocals in such classics as “A Cockeyed Optimist” are powerful. And while the chemistry between her and Eric Bailey, who plays Emile De Becque, the suave older Frenchman who hopes to marry her, isn’t a highlight of the show, it’s good enough to move the story along.
One aspect of Carnation’s performance didn’t work for me: her attempt at a Midwest accent, which sometimes made her speaking lines sound muddled. As for Bailey, he sings the heck out of “Some Enchanted Evening,” always a plus.
In the other romantic coupling of the show, Jordan Litz offers a crackling good performance as Lt. Joseph Cable, who comes to the island for a secret mission. His vocals were pure and sweet in “Younger Than Springtime,” which he sings to the beautiful Liat (a fine Kirstin Bangs), the young native woman with whom he falls in love.
I was glad to see Litz offer some depth in the poignant “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” which must have seemed a searing indictment of discrimination when the play debuted in 1949 (and retains some of that power, if not the shock value, even today.)
I didn’t see that same degree of depth in Litz’s recent portrayal of Tony in GCP’s “West Side Story.” Litz has a chiseled leading-man look and exudes a natural earnestness on stage; I was happy to see him go deeper than that in “South Pacific.”
The production includes some strong notable GCP veterans such as Janet Glaude as a professional-quality Bloody Mary (with her trademark gorgeous voice, she manages to find the humor in the role without giving in to condescending stereotypes) and Greg Ruud as the blustery Capt. George Brackett. And CJ Dion is terrific as the always-conniving Luther Billis, who gives the ever-more-serious narrative a bright comic levity.
It’s always fun to spot performers in smaller roles and the ensemble who stand out. My nod goes to Juan Danner as the bespectacled Professor, one of the stir-crazy Navy Seabees who sing the buoyant production number “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” (deftly choreographed by Julie Lucido). He brings a buoyant stage presence and great vocal chops to every scene he is in, even when in the background. The well-prepared men’s and women’s ensembles each have rousing moments in the spotlight.
The creative team is in fine form, with my eye particularly caught by Andrea Herickson’s sensitive lighting design and David Pierce’s rotating-set scenic design, which has to depict numerous locations. (I would have liked to see a little more water in the hair-washing scene, but that’s a quibble.)
What stands out most for me in this show, however, isn’t simply one performance or design aspect. This “South Pacific” is about an ensemble as a whole telling a story of love, tolerance and sacrifice. It fits smoothly together like a puzzle with no pieces missing, thanks to Pessano’s direction. In his hands, what could have been a Broadway chestnut is instead a heartfelt show that offers emotional heft and more than a few smiles.