Muny review: 'South Pacific' is simply magnificent

For the News-DemocratJuly 9, 2013 

Bolstered by Broadway heavyweights and a fresh perspective, "South Pacific" is simply magnificent, creating an as-good-as-it-gets enchanting evening at the Muny.

This rapturous production upholds the strengths of the 1949 classic, with powerful vocalists bringing out the best in each song, and creating vivid characters one cares about -- the indelible Nellie Forbush, Emile de Becque, Bloody Mary, Lt. Cable, Luther Billis and Liat.

Once innovative, "South Pacific" became a standard, and got shoved aside by flashier bombastic spectacles. Then, in 2008, a vibrant Lincoln Center revival restored this timeless musical to its proper glory. The magic continues on the massive Muny stage.

Director Rob Ruggerio creates crisp, bold masterpieces. He makes a difficult and challenging piece look effortless. His "South Pacific" brimmed with both humor and heartache, and kept us riveted. The striking set, designed by Michael Schweikardt, allowed the scene changes to be remarkably fluid.

Fortunately, Ruggerio had an exceptional cast and a top-of-their-game staff to help create this tropical paradise. Rodgers and Hammerstein were at their peak when they wrote this score, which might arguably be their best overall, and they also were progressive confronting racism.

The story blends two love stories -- a Navy nurse falls for a wealthy French plantation owner and a preppy lieutenant from Philadelphia society falls in love with a Tonkinese girl -- with World War II as the backdrop.

Laura Michelle Kelly was a fiesty Nellie from Little Rock, and her chemistry with Ben Davis (Sir Galahad in recent "Spamalot") as a younger Emile was palpable. They both have a laundry list of Broadway credits, notably Kelly as Mary Poppins and Davis as Javert in "Les Miz," and command a stage with ease. While their acting was fine -- his French accent impeccable -- it was their vocals that took our breath away. They had us at "Twin Soliloques." Davis was incredibly moving with "Some Enchanted Evening" and the shiver-inducing "This Nearly Was Mine."

Kelly's energetic deliveries of 'Cockeyed Optimist," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" and "Honey Bun" were joyous.

Besides the stellar leads, "South Pacific" featured two Tony nominees as Bloody Mary and Lt. Cable. Loretta Albes Sayre originated the role of Bloody Mary in the Lincoln Center revival and toured with the show, and she is probably the best Bloody Mary you'll ever see ---- she brought out a poignancy to the Tonkinese peddler that's not often there, and also sang "Bali Ha'i" with great emotion.

Josh Young (Tony nominee as Judas in 2012 "Jesus Christ Superstar") was a superb Cable, captivating in "Younger Than Springtime" and "You've Got to be Carefully Taught." Tally Sessions, who also was in 'Spamalot," was hilarious as shyster seabee Luther Billis.

The ensemble was very tight, with Michael James Reed as Harbison, James Anthony as Captain Brackett, and Ryan Andes as goofy Stewpot impressive.

No matter how many times you have seen this show, a good production is worth seeing again. Once you hear the fabulous orchestra play that beautiful score, time stands still in Forest Park.

We are always swept away by "South Pacific," but this one stands apart. And from the thunderous ovations the audience gave, on their feet quickly, it was a Muny night to be savored and remembered.

What: "South Pacific"

When: 8:15 nightly through July 14

Where: The Muny outdoor amphitheater in Forest Park, St. Louis

Tickets: $12-$80 at www.themuny.org

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