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July 2024


An Enchanted Evening Enjoys Its 75th Anniversary
Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s
South Pacific
 in a Stunning Revival at Maine State Music Theatre

Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s Pulitzer Prize winning musical South Pacific. The groundbreaking work with a book by Oscar Hammerstein II (in collaboration with Joshua Logan) and music by Richard Rodgers opened on Broadway in 1949 with the cast that included Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. The show went on to win ten Tonys, including Best Musical, and to crown that achievement with the Pulitzer Prize for drama - only the second musical to ever be so honored. 

Following on the heels of the duo’s successful Oklahoma,
South Pacific
, nonetheless. experienced an uphill battle on its road to the Great White Way.  One of the first book musicals in the history of the genre, it dealt with themes that were considered provocative - even taboo-  in its time, and its format defied the rules of conventional Broadway.   Rodgers and Hammerstein boldly took on the issues of racism, prejudice and culture conflict in America; they not only decried the destructive ugliness or that cancer, but they refused all attempts to remove these discussions from the show.  They even went further to insist that whenever the musical toured, it played only to integrated houses. South Pacific eschewed the trappings of glittery dance musicals popular at the time; it did away with a dance ensemble and chorus, substituting instead an ensemble filled with individualized, named characters, and it conferred the leading roles on a Broadway belter, Mary Martin, and an opera singer, Ezio Pinza. 

Perhaps much of the success of the plot derives from the fact that the story of South Pacific was sourced from James Michener‘s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories, Tales of the South Pacific. Mitchener’s raw prose, historical authenticity, cast of indelible characters framed in an unique and unforgettable voice.  While Hammerstein and Logan re-imagined some of the plot and characters, they retained Michener’s wrenching conflicts and parallel love stories.

The difficulty with revivals of iconic productions is that the original has become so fixed in memory that comparisons are inevitable. But on this 75th anniversary, I had the opportunity to attend a stunning revival of South Pacific, co-produced by Maine Street Music Theatre and the Fulton Theatre (Lancaster, PA). It opened MSMT’s 2024 season at the Pickard Theater in Brunswick, Maine on June 6th. 


The production demonstrates how prescient, powerful, and entirely entertaining South Pacific remains, and how it continues to speak to a new audience. Perhaps the secret to the success of this work’s survival has been the willingness of the creatives to be respectful of the legacy and sensitive to contemporary context.  Marshalling the companies’ considerable artistic resources, this 75th anniversary production is musically glorious, visually lush, and packed with emotion and talent.The tightly written script helped define “book musicals.” It offered theatre-goers a coherent, issue-driven plot told not only in magnificent musical moments  but also in intense, dramatic ones, punctuated by just the right amount of comic relief. Heartwarming, but also heart wrenching, it offers a powerful evening in the theatre.

Directed by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark and choreographed by Robin, the production opts for a cinematic feel, taut pace, and emotionally poignant moments. There are fresh, original touches like the choreographed staging of the overture or the more tender, realistic rethinking of “Happy Talk.”  One scene flows seamlessly into the next, as the directors take a page from Joshua Logan’s playbook and have actors’ exits and entrances overlap.  Despite the fact that this is not a dance musical per se, Robin manages to create dance moments that add vibrancy and kinetic energy to the piece, and scenes like the Thanksgiving Day entertainment are especially funny and lively. His and Clark’s skill in drawing from actors finely nuanced performances is evident not only in the work of the principals, but in the detailed portrayals by each member of the ensemble. Clark’s extensive experience with the musical (having been a legendary Lt. Cable) also inspires a special understanding and connection in the cast.

The musical direction by Sam Groisser, who leads a nine-piece orchestra, is vibrant and does full justice to this beautiful melodic score . It is thrilling to hear the full overture, entr’acte, and postlude so beautifully played.


The visual production is state-of-the-art, conjuring up the colorful warmth of the South Pacific. William James Mohney’s set design, (Meg Valentine, props) together with Colin Riebel’s video design, makes masterful use of MSMT’s new video technology, while seamlessly blending projection with props and constructed pieces. Effects like the panoramic video sweep of the island and surrounding ocean during the overture, or the reveal of a tropical waterfall lit by a silvery moon (a nod to the iconic waterfall movie sequence), or the rustling of palm trees and billowing of waves all help convey the audience to a tropical realm.

Paul Black’s atmospheric lighting with its rich, saturated colors contributes to the overall effect of fluidity and magical realism, creating a sense of tropical heat and mystery magic, while Shannon Slatton’s sound design is filled with subtle touches like the soft chatter of birds that transport the audience.

Jane Alois Stein’s costumes (Kevin S. Foster II, wigs) are characterful and nostalgic nods to the 1940s. As Production Stage Manager, Ivan Dario Cano (Liz Patton Assistant Stage Manager) anchors the finely tuned production.

The cast has depth and class. As Emile de Becque, William Michals offers a sumptuous voice and a riveting stage presence. To a role he has played on Broadway and around the world, Michals brings his glorious, classically trained, rich, chocolate-hued baritone and his deep identification with the character.  His de Becque is virile, dignified, fiercely independent, urbane, and charming. His vocal solos – “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” - bring down the house with his resonant fortissimo, exquisite pianissimo, and elegant legato and phrasing. From the very first, he melts not only Ensign Forbush’s heart, but also that of the audience.

Carolyn Anne Miller once again demonstrates her versatility, creating a Nellie Forbush who is it once na茂ve and wise, perky and tender. She brings freshness and warmth to her big vocal moments and emotional authenticity to her dramatic ones.  Moments like “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” are filled with energy and fun, but she can also summon the conflict and passion her character feels.


Lydia Gaston serves up a younger, more sympathetic Bloody Mary than some.  She is a survivor, a comic Mother Courage, who only wants the best for her daughter, Liat, and she makes the most of “Bali H’ai” with her appealing alto and strong belt.

Jake Goz portrays Lt. Joseph Cable as both innocent and street savvy, and he delivers one of the most beautiful ballads in the show, “Younger Than Springtime,” with lyric grace and one of the most meaningful ones, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” with pointed passion. Todd Lawson makes a shrewd, yet endearing Luther Billis.  Amusingly quirky in his mannerisms, he also shows Billis’ softer side in his very sincere affection for Nellie.

David Girolmo’s Captain Brackett captures the frustrations of the island commander as he masks a hidden sense of humor and warm heart, while James Patterson is the perfect foil as Commander Harbison. Entrusted with much of the exposition in the last scenes, Alexander Rios makes the most of his moments as Lt. Buzz Adams.

Gabi Chun portrays Liat with delicate sweetness, while Eliza Lawson and TroyLi Fan Santiago are winsome as Ngana and Jerome.

Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to forego the traditional chorus/ensemble in SOUTH PACIFIC and chose to name and individualize each of the supporting characters.  MSMT’s ensemble honors that choice with each and every member delivering a meticulously detailed and deeply committed performance.  The ensemble numbers like “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” are among the highlights of the show.


In reviving a classic of the American musical canon for a 2024 audience, MSMT & the Fulton demonstrate not only their stylistic range, but also their extraordinary ability to honor the past while making it sensitively resonate in the present. SOUTH PACIFIC remains the masterpiece it is because of the incomparable genius of its
creators.  It continues to move contemporary audiences because of the intelligence, commitment, and vision of the company’s artistic direction and of the production’s creatives, cast, and crew.  This is a SOUTH PACIFIC for a new generation, but also a SOUTH PACIFIC for all time. It is an Enchanted Evening that lingers and lasts.



Photos courtesy of MSMT & the Fulton Theatre

SOUTH PACIFIC ran from June 5-22, 2024
 at MSMT’s Pickard Theater on the
Bowdoin College campus, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME
   www.msmt.org  207-725-8769


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Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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