If you choose to attend one production this summer, consider Moonlight’s terrific rendering of South Pacific, the rare musical play that balances saccharine comedy with serious themes and stage craft, and an ocean of memorable songs.
Even if you’ve seen the Rodgers & Hammerstein gem before, or the film, or read James Michener’s book, Tales of the South Pacific, which sparked them all, you should drive to Vista to experience this production outdoors, especially when a heat wave makes normally cool nights feel like the breezy tropics.
Directed by Steven Glaudini, Moonlight’s smart production feels like a big Broadway show, with a pitch-perfect cast, rich orchestra, vivid sets and period costumes. The plot focuses on not one, but two romances and injects progressive messages about racial intolerance.
The action begins on a South Pacific island during World War II. Hilary Maiberger plays Nellie Forbush, the perky Navy nurse from Littlerock who falls in love with Emile de Becque, a middle-aged French plantation owner, played by Randall Goode, a popular Moonlight lead.
They met at a dance, and are instantly attracted to each other, but as recounted in the quick duet “Twin Soliloquies” they both have doubts; She worries she’s too much of a hick, he worries she could have her pick of younger men. They tiptoe around rattan furniture on the terrace until the sexual tension is too much, so they swig some cognac. Their tight repartee about the “hot” weather is dry and believable; chemistry and pacing are sharp throughout the production. Goode’s deep voice is velvet in “Some Enchanted Evening,” marked by heavy T sounds and a sweet high note.
Tall and confident, Emile seems the perfect guy for Nellie, and he looks good in riding pants, but he has secrets. He had to leave France because he killed a man. Nellie goes ballistic then struggles to accept Emile’s mixed-race children.
Hanging out with her nurse pals, she belts out “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair” in a primitive shower built by Seabees on a beach. Some of us remember when the song became a jingle for hair-dye, replacing the word man with gray. Ms. Maiberger is giddy and spontaneous in “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.” You’ll want to sing along to those bouncy lyrics in waltz time like “I’m as corny as Kansas in August” that she delivers till she’s ready to pass out. Her twangy accent can annoy, yet she remains a tiny loveable firecracker with heart.
The second romance involves Marine Lt. Cable, played by Danny Gurwin, a conflicted Princeton grad who falls in love with the beautiful Tonkinese girl Liat, on the forbidden island of Bali Ha’i. Overwhelmed by his own prejudice, he croons in an old-fashioned style “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” which is both heartfelt and a stinging commentary on current racial troubles.
Brenda Oen portrays the mysterious Tonkinese woman nicknamed Bloody Mary as a gritty manipulator. She calls the cheap Seabees bastards and punches one in the groin. She sells them grass skirts and fake shrunken heads, and tries to marry off her daughter Liat. While her vulgar broken English brings giggles, such as calling the Lt. “Loo-tell-un” Cable, her singing voice and phrasing are riveting (“Bali Ha’” and “Happy Talk”). One can’t help but think of desperate islanders that relied on the military to survive during the war.
Bare-chested Seabees are led by the crafty Luther Billis, played by the fast-talking Jason W. Webb. Lonely for women and bored, the men lounge on the beach and ogle the nurses. Webb leads the group in “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” which is classic or chauvinist, depending on who you ask. His dropping out of the sky from an airplane, surviving in shredded dungarees, is beyond corny, and from the original play. His cohorts offer welcome comic relief and varied personalities. A variety of body types makes them authentic.
The Thanksgiving Show with multiple elements and timing challenges – a show within a show – illuminates Glaudini’s skillful directing. Choreography by Carlos Mendoza is upbeat and simple. Unlike other musicals full of tapping and ballroom, he adds Charleston and playful chorus-line sequences that further the idea of a skit performed on an island. As leader of the Seabees, Billis dresses like an ugly woman, complete with coconut halves. That shtick harkens to cheesy old war movies and TV shows, and sadly, current struggles between men and women in the military. And it is disturbing to see two African American soldiers left to clean up, and hear higher ups speak of “Japs.” A rotating mini stage lets the audience see the “show” and back stage antics in a blink.
Costumes include historically accurate uniforms in khaki fabric that require lots of starch and ironing, old-style dungarees, and pleasing swim suits in brilliant colors. Turkey feather costumes made out of newspaper are genius. Most of the sets and costumes are from the Tony award-winning Lincoln Center production.
The power of sonic details cannot be overstated. Musical direction by Elan McMahan is excellent, so much so that one could forget there are 28 musicians hiding in the pit. The sound effects of an old jeep speeding away and the roar of an old war plane flying overhead, designed by Chris Leussmann, add greatly to the production. And there’s a compelling moment when soldiers strain to hear the sounds of Emile reporting from the war zone on a far island. The tinny quality of his voice emitted from a small speaker on stage adds unexpected realism, especially while sitting outside in the dark.
The production runs long. By the third rendition of “Dite Moi” (sung by adorable Sophia Aujero and Ace Young) even kid-loving grandmas may be heading for the shuttle vans. Yet under Glaudini’s direction, the narrative moves swiftly; actors and sets pop on and off the stage to tell a gripping story that in a strange way feels contemporary.
Moonlight will likely draw a younger audience and more families for the remainder of the summer season under the stars, which includes the Wizard of Oz, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and The Who’s Tommy.
South Pacific runs through July 13; show times 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays (plus July 2; no performance July 4).