It wasn’t the usual start to a tropical get-away. Weather reports were calling for a MASSIVE ice storm, schools were closed in anticipation, and the sleet was beginning to fall. Nonetheless, I was not going to miss this opportunity to see at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, OH one of THE most classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals EVER: South Pacific!
I’d never seen the stage version, though I know many of the songs. I thought I’d seen the movie ages ago, but couldn’t remember many key plot details (and afterwards, I’d decided I must have turned the movie off at intermission!). I took along a friend who was well-versed in the stage version and tried to describe to me the hand animations of “Happy Talk” she’d seen in the past, which made for an amusing car ride to Cleveland!
When we got to the theatre, we were greeted on-stage with an ENORMOUS partial first page of James Michner’s book “South Pacific” on which the musical was based. As the 26 piece orchestra played the overture, there was a collective sigh of delight from the audience over the resonance of the live music and the book page was illuminated with lighting reminiscent of slatted shades. It was a treat for both ears and eyes.
When the scrim rose, the treat became a smorgasbord. We were suddenly looking out over the seascape of the South Pacific, complete with a beach and palm tree. I could almost feel the sun beating down and the tropical breeze wafting sea salt scent off the ocean. It was breath-taking and thoughts of the sleet outside melted like snow in the sun.
The entire show runs 3 hours, but you’ll wish it went on for 3 more! The sets and lighting are exquisite: subtle, but impactful; detailed and so very realistic you really will think you’re on a beach. When Bali Ha’i appears – and disappears – you’ll rub your eyes and swear it’s a mirage, then spend the entire intermission trying to figure out how the heck they do it! (Oh, the magic of live theatre!) The live orchestra carries you away on swells of gorgeous sound and the singing…well, the singing is faultless – from every single performer.
Carmen Cusack really is from Arkansas, right? I mean, the accent, the demeanor, the youthful exuberance and nervous unsophistication were expertly acted. Her use of grace notes and the inflection in her voice as she sang, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” made my jaw drop. The bass notes emanating from the throat of the man playing Emile were astonishing every time and the chorus of men singing, “There Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Dame” just made we women in the audience remember that there ain’t nothin’ like a muscled man who can sing and dance!
The production was playful and fun, yet still addressed serious issues of racial prejudice which are sadly relevant even today. There was a current of gender prejudice apparent to the modern eye as well, though the show doesn’t really address it. The issues of war and survival and culture clash are all woven seamlessly into the rich tapestry of this production’s social commentary.
I tried to find something I didn’t like about the performance, but was tough. There were a few microphone problems which created some distracting feedback at times, but those types of technical glitches were likely ironed out by the next performance. There were a few timing issues with lines in the first romantic scene near the beginning, but the mikes were also dropping out, so that might have added to the problem. Finally, though the role of Bloody Mary was as hilarious as always (“Steeengee BAS-tard!” “Speh-seal EYE-land!”), she wasn’t portrayed as raunchy and flamboyant as she could have been.
Quite honestly, this is classic Broadway-style live theatre at the very top of its game. You don’t usually see this quality of live theatre ANYWHERE but New York or London, so to have it land in our own backyard, in Cleveland, is an opportunity not to be missed. If the doldrums of winter in Cleveland have you dreaming of lush beaches and warm waves but firmly tethered to the icy ground, set sail on a 3 hour tour to South Pacific at Playhouse Square!
“South Pacific” runs only until February 13th. Buy your tickets here and don’t wait or your ship will sail on this great show!