Production’s 2 casts honor this musical favorite
By Peter Jacobi
For decades, when the Jacobs School added two summer productions to its annual opera season, one spot was reserved for a musical. In recent years, with the disappearance of summer activity, musicals have invaded the fall-to-spring lineup.
The stated argument, and it is an appropriate one, goes this way: We have vocal students whose voices and dramatic talents are more likely to lead them professionally toward musicals than opera, and we must give them the needed exposure and experience. Rarely brought up, but surely a factor, is that inclusion of musicals is good for strained budgets. A number of musicals continue to prove themselves as popular choices; they attract ticket buyers.
“South Pacific” certainly is proving to be an attraction for many. Friday and Saturday audiences in the Musical Arts Center were healthily large. An extra Sunday matinee brought additional fans, and ticket sales for the concluding performances next Friday and Saturday have been strong. As for this Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite being invasive in a lineup of operas, well, it deserves to be, particularly when the product is as entertaining and well put together as is Indiana University’s Opera Theater’s current revival. Quality makes this “South Pacific” a welcome part of the season.
The musical has breeding. It is based on a collection of stories by James Michener, “Tales of the South Pacific,” that earned a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Later, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway show piece won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. So, the content, the story, is worthy as a reminder of another critical time in our history, the World War II years. And Richard Rodgers’ score, to which Oscar Hammerstein added such clever lyrics, remains a wonder, containing as it does a profusion of songs both pertinent for the story and delightful to listen to.
The production’s two casts, industrious and talented, honor the musical. So does the Walter Huff- trained chorus assigned to portray Seabees and nurses. So does the University Orchestra in the pit, sounding far better than a large percentage of professional theater orchestras. All matters musical have received careful attention from music director and conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, a returning guest who on each visit seems to understand how to get the best out of young musicians.
To work with the singers, soloists and chorus, to have them become individuals in the story and integrated as an ensemble of players, the powers that be assigned Vincent Liotta who, since he joined the Jacobs faculty 20 years ago, has stage directed more than 50 productions here. He has always brought to his work not only knowledge of the theater and all musical extensions of it, not only an inherent skill at enhancing singers’ acting abilities, but an abiding enthusiasm and loving devotion to thus serve each work on that long list of operas, operettas and musicals.
Officially, “South Pacific” is the last of those assignments. He’s retiring. He’s retiring on a high note. As theater, the “South Pacific” on view is most effective; it is funny and poignant, romantic and a part realistic-part nostalgic return to the past. As one watches, one feels that the actors have come to inhabit their roles. Someone has led them to that level of involvement; it is Vince Liotta.
“South Pacific” tells two love stories. One — involving the nurse Nellie Forbush and French emigre planter Emile de Becque — ends happily, despite a problem of race brought on by the presence of his two children, birthed by a Polynesian woman. Two sopranos, Kayla Eilers on Friday and Jessamyn Anderson on Saturday, gave Nellie the vocal thrust and ebullient personality to belt “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and so much more.
Two fine, mellow-voiced baritones, Bruno Sandes and Johann Schram Reed, made the mature de Becque a sympathetic figure. The two were excellent choices and sang beautifully Emile’s romantic anthem, “Some Enchanted Evening.”
The other love affair, between Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Rafael Campos Salles and James Reynolds) and the island girl Liat (Meadow Nguy and Marianthi Hatzis) does not end happily. Cable’s death, while on a military mission, destroys the liaison. Their scenes contain the passions of youth.
Eileen Jennings and Marlen Nahhas offer tours de force as Bloody Mary, an island native, Liat’s mother, and — as in the best productions — a scene stealer. Luther Billis, a Seabee cutup, obtains personality from baritones Scott Stauffer and Evan Forbes. As de Becque’s children, Nathaniel Cox-Thurmond and Marielle Berin steal hearts when they appear.
The new physical production by William Forrester features moving parts that comfortably and quickly make scenic changes possible. Pleasant to look at, they’ve been effectively lit by Patrick Mero. Linda Pisano has contributed the costume designs with, as usual, a keen eye for historical validity. A sound engineer, Julie Randolph Sloan, amplified music and talk adroitly, even though a few of the performers should have been told to speak louder.
© Herald Times 2015