A friend of mine judges Asian restaurants solely on their sweet and sour soup: mess that up and not much else that follows will matter. But deliver a soup that evenly balances the sweetness of duck sauce with the sour of rice vinegar, and right away it’s a good sign that the kitchen knows what it’s doing.
So it is with the venerable South Pacific and its songs: mess up its well known anthem “Some Enchanted Evening”- or, worse yet- err with the haunting “Bali Ha’i”, and you’ll know right from the get-go that the kitchen is off that night. Those staples of musical theatre have to be handled with delicacy, by people who know what they’re doing, else the evening can veer sharply to the right of sour pretty quickly.
Not to worry. Toby’s Dinner Theatre has again assembled just the right mix of sweet and sour for this show, and with this large and accomplished cast the happy result is that there’s no such thing as too many cooks.
For one thing, the calibre of artists at Toby’s, from the ensemble to the leads, continues to be just outstanding. Director Mark Minnick seems particularly adept at casting: a motley collection of comedic Seabees sets a lighthearted tone at the beginning, pretty nurses cavort through the dance numbers, and even the children in the ensemble have an enviable professional polish.
In this production, both Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque (Teresa Dansky and Russel Rinker, respectively) are fresh interpretations of characters we know well. Both possess superior singing voices as well, particularly Mr. Rinker, and the chemistry between the two is believable.
And the leads aren’t the only standouts: Crystal Freeman as Bloody Mary has the strongest voice in the cast, and delivers a wonderful rendition of “Bali Ha’i”; as Lt Cable, Jonathan Helwig had some difficulties with high notes but his scenes with Surasee Das as Liat were so genuinely affecting that you’d be hard pressed not to get a bit emotional.
One actor in particular was an audience favorite: Jeffrey Shankle as Billis, the scheming Seabee and de facto leader of sailors with way too much time on their hands. Not only did he shine in numbers such as “There is Nothing Like A Dame” (along with all the rather marvelous Seabees) but his comic timing was consistently spotless- it would be so easy to turn this character into a two-dimensional rimshot, but in a small scene with Nellie, he showed a gentlemanly side of scam artist Billis.
Sets and costumes were, as per usual, beautifully executed (David A. Hopins’ set and light design and Lawrency B Munsey’s costume design.) Bali Ha’i was hinted at by a lovely, slightly off focus projection above our heads, while the whole of the Pacific’s airborne fleet was symbolized by a working airplane propeller. And yes, there is a shower, and yes, Nellie really washes her hair during “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair”. Mr. Munsey’s costumes were a delight- the nurses’ bathing suits were perfectly 1940s, and the workmanship above reproach- I found myself mesmerized by details such as the fit of Nellie’s beautiful green and white party dress and the fabric prints of the Sunday comics used for the Thanksgiving show performers: here is a designer who researches historic shows with a sharp eye.
Over the years, I’ve seen at least eight or nine productions of South Pacific. This is partially the result of working in the theater and having so many friends who do musical theatre; but it is also because this nearly seventy year old show continues to warrant ongoing stagings. Not only is the score magnificent- it’s one of, if not the best, of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work- but because it’s not just a simple song-and-dance show: it is about something very important.
When first produced in 1949, the romance of its main characters largely overshadowed its secondary characters’ romantic dilemma of the (then) controversial topic of bigotry. As seen now, South Pacific explores the personal costs of bigotry, and Nellie Forbush is not merely a young woman in love but a heroine who rejects the narrow views of her upbringing. I think this reversal is partly what keeps modern audiences invested in South Pacific: we see ourselves in Nellie, an obedient child who becomes something more, and we also see the costs of bigotry, in the parallel but ultimately tragic romance of Lt. Cable and his love Liat, an island girl. It would be so easy to just go home and hum the lighthearted “Honey Bun” to ourselves, but somewhere in the back of our head, the strains of “You’ve Got To Be Taught,” Lt. Cable’s angry song about his parents’ lessons on whom to hate, remains. This song alone must have been a brave and startling revelation back in 1949, and, sadly, it still has great relevance for us today.
January 14 – March 20, 2016
Toby’s Dinner Theatre
5900 Symphony Woods Road
Columbia, MD 21044
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $41 – $60
———————One last thing. Robert Biederman 125, one of Toby’s excellent troupe of actors, is also its emcee for the evening, doling out preshow birthday wishes and jokes with (yes, I’ll say it again, from an earlier review) grand Borscht Belt timing. South Pacific, set in the 1940s, has as its backbone, the conflict of World War II. Mr. Beiderman concluded the jokes and revelry with a request that current and veteran members of the military stand up so that the audience could thank them, resulting in well earned applause before the performance even started. Class act at Toby’s, ladies and gentlemen.
So take a break from our current wintry weather, and drive to Columbia, where the South Sea breezes blow and Bali Ha’i is not only a beautiful song but the specialty drink of the evening. Serious musical theater and a drink with an umbrella in it: what more could you ask for?
South Pacific . Music: Richard Rodgers . Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein . Book: Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan (adapted from “Tales of the South Pacific” by James A Michener . Director: Mark Minnick . Co-Director: Toby Orenstein . Cast: Russel Rinker as Emile De Becque; Teresa Dansky as Nellie Forbush; Crystal Freeman as Bloody Mary; Jeffrey Shankle as Billis; Jonathan Helwig as Lt Cable; David Bosley-Reynolds as Cmdr Harbison; David James as Seabee, Robert Biederman 125 as Captain Brackett; Lawrence B. Munsey as US Emile; Jeremy Scott Balustein as Seabee; Surassree Das as Liat; Justin Calhoun as Bob McCaffrey; Eric Clare as Nurse; David Jennings as Lt Buzz Adams; Amanda Kaplan as Nurse; Shawn Kettering as Stewpot; Mackenzie Newbury as Nurse; Julia Lancione as Nurse; RJ Pavel as Henry/Seabee; Darren McDonnel, as Professor; Children (A and B casts): Dulcie Pham, Nathan Pham, Anna Jachero, Aiden Levin . Choreography: Mark Minnick . Costumes: Lawrence B. Munsey . Set and Lighting Design: David A Hopkins . Sound Design: Mark Smedley . Musical Direction: Reenie Codelka . Stage Manager: Kate Wackerie . Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.
Running time 2.15 Hrs. (doors open at 6; with dinner approx 5 hrs)