South Pacific comes to us with an intimidating load of pedigreed baggage: Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, Rodgers & Hammerstein. And if you add its dramatic World War II setting, its themes of interracial romance and prejudice, its enormous scenic drops and set pieces, and its cast of two dozen plus, it'd be enough for Countryside Community Theatre's current production of the piece to be impressive, and it most certainly is that.
Yet the happier, more surprising delight of this South Pacific is that for all of its large-scale themes and sizable scope, to say nothing of its reputation as the Musical Classic to end all Musical Classics, director Brian Nelson's take on the show isn't the least bit bullying; it doesn't want to knock your socks off so much as enwrap you in a warm, gentle embrace. Beginning with its presentation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's overture - played with exceptional style by a 14-piece orchestra led by music directors Paul and Marcia Renaud - Countryside's season-opener will no doubt satisfy audiences expecting grandeur. Audiences hoping for subtlety, wit, and honest emotionalism, however, might be in for an even better time.
I may as well admit that after participating in a high-school production of the show, attending a couple of other stage versions, and enduring Joshua Logan's lumbering bore of a movie adaptation, I'm one of those who would've been content to never see South Pacific again. And as the lights dimmed for Sunday's afternoon performance, I girded myself for the extended opening scene between cockeyed optimist Nellie Forbush (Andrea Millea) and French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Joe Urbaitis) - the one you have to sit through before you can get to the musical's fun songs. What I absolutely didn't expect, though, was for this early romantic sequence to be so charming and effortless and real that I didn't want to escape it.
Few roles in musical theatre are as iconic as South Pacific's leads, and the thrill in Millea's and Urbaitis' portrayals lies in how little time they spend reminding you of that. Ensign Nellie Forbush, the starry-eyed U.S. Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, practically corners the market on Southern pluck. But starting with her first lines of dialogue, Millea plays her with such delicate, almost bashful grace that when she eventually delivers her "A Wonderful Guy" show-stopper, you respond less to the number than to Nellie's (and Millea's) obvious elation in singing it - finally, there's an outlet for the radiant bliss that's been building in her, and that Millea has been building in you. The actress has a beautiful soprano, yet her whole performance here is lyrical.
As with Millea's Nellie, there's nothing about Urbaitis' Emile that suggests Star Turn - an easy trap to fall into when you're belting "Some Enchanted Evening" within a production's first 10 minutes. The actor, though, is careful to convey romantic longing, anguish, and joy from a place of honesty and life-sized feelings. Urbaitis is blessed with one of area theatre's most expressive stage faces, allowing you to read Emile's complexities without pushing their points, and when he performs a glorious ballad such as "This Nearly Was Mine," he sings it with fierce conviction and specificity, turning a song that's (for many) overly familiar into one that sounds brand-spanking-new.
And that's where the great delight of this South Pacific lies: At its best, Nelson's production lends the material a freshness and truthfulness that reminds you why it became a classic in the first place. The chorus members do a mostly first-rate job of projecting naturalism without skimping on musical-theatre pleasures - the male voices, in particular, are outstanding - and the supporting cast is filled with winners: Jonathan Schrader, whose Luther Billis is an endearing and hysterical teddy bear; Nicholas Nolte, whose Lieutenant Joseph Cable is filled with romantic ache and understated self-loathing (and who offers hauntingly lovely vocals); Cindy Ramos-Parmley, who gives necessary comic oomph to her vexing Bloody Mary character. (Will there ever come a time when hearing her pronounce "lieutenant" as "loo-tell-an" stops being amusing? Please?) And for every performance that's over-baked - the usually terrific Michael Callahan, as Stewpot, seems hell-bent on stealing as much focus as possible - two more pop just right; Calvin Vo proves himself a fantastic dry comic as The Professor, and given almost no dialogue, Stacy Phipps' Liat is a heartbreaker of the highest order.
If I've thus far failed to mention Daniell Grothus' picturesque lighting and Jovon Eberhart's rather wondrous, lived-in set designs - plus all those numbers, including "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and "Honey Bun," that are oftentimes the reason people attend this particular musical - it's not because they're afterthoughts. It's because Nelson, in a formidable directing debut, reminds us that South Pacific is, for all of its grandness, a human epic, one rooted in precise emotions and actual experience. Countryside's production isn't just for those who already enjoy the show, but for those who had given up hope of ever enjoying it - and for those lucky audiences, seeing it for the first time, who now get to enjoy it the right way.
For information and tickets, call (563)285-6228 or visit CCTOnStage.org.