“South Pacific” Skylight Opera Theatre
My theatrical nostalgia trip continued when we went to see the Skylight’s production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” I played the part of Captain Brackett, the long-suffering island commander, long enough ago that I had to use makeup to appear “over fifty” with the West Allis Players. (One in a long series of non-singing roles in musical theatre— Jeff Douglas in “Brigadoon”, The Constable in “Fiddler on the Roof”, Herr Zeller in “Sound of Music,” Erronius in “Forum”--.) The Skylight’s production was excellent in many ways: fine dancing; excellent singing on the part of the male leads, operatic veteran Kurt Ollman as Emile De Becque and Mark Womack as Joe Cable; and an extravagantly raffish comic turn by Ray Jivoff as Luther Billis, and beautiful singing and expressive acting by Rita Thomas as “Bloody Mary”. The set was a tour de force, with a large turntable containing elliptical sections of platform that meshed with the stage’s entrances and exits in many combinations as it was rotated. There was also a fountain/shower with real water.
The show’s weak point, unfortunately, was Jennifer Swiderski in the pivotal role of Nellie Forbush, the “cockeyed optimist” nurse from Little Rock, AK. The Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel grader her performance as lacking spark: in the performance we saw, she was working hard and evidently giving her all, but the sparks just weren’t striking. She is a strong, energetic, and skillful dancer, no problems there. She has guts: in the staging of “Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” she actually got her hair wet under the practical shower and finished the scene that way. Her voice is good for musical theatre and fills the hall. However, her apparent concession to vocal characterization was to occasionally hit a word with an unattractive flat nasality that someone must have told her was “Midwestern.” Knowing some genuine Arkansans, their accent is nothing like that, and shame on the Skylight’s directors for letting that through. She also, as was famously complained of Katharine Hepburn in one role, “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” She gets across Nellie as cheerful and chipper just fine: however, shock and horror when confronted with De Becque’s native children only worked out as mild confusion; what should have been shared grief at the death of Joe Cable showed only as modest concern. Since these are two of the show’s most dramatic moments, the performance was robbed of much potential luster.
The supporting cast of sailors and nurses sang and danced well, and the Skylight orchestra was in good form. Another production plus was the montage of images from World War II in the Pacific theatre that were projected during the overture. A downcheck was the apparent lack of a Makeup supervisor. Not only was “Nellie” let on stage with a makeup that was noticeably pale for Wisconsin, let alone someone who has been on a South Pacific island for months, but there was no particular attempt to be uniform in the rest of the cast either, such that the one “Marine” who had a realistic sunburn stood out.
“South Pacific” is a classic of the American musical theatre and contains some of its most beautiful and rousing music. The Skylight’s production is well worth taking in, despite its flaws.