Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 20, 2015

South Pacific

Westfield Theatre Group, Westfield, MA
through April 25, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

In a program book note, director Bill Stroud cites the line “Most people live on a lonely island” from South Pacific’s signature ballad “Bali Hai” as a touchstone for his moving production of this 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, which highlights the darker side of the story and gives its lighter moments an antic edge.

Based on James Michener’s short story collection “Tales of the South Pacific”, the show focuses on two romances: between a middle-aged French-born owner of an island plantation, Emile de Becque, and an Arkansas-born nurse, Nellie Forbush, on a World War II military base in the South Pacific; and between American lieutenant Joseph Cable and the dark-skinned daughter, Liat, of local entrepreneur Bloody Mary. Another entrepreneur, Seabee Luther Billis, provides comic relief.

The large cast of 29 singing actors is consistently passionate and engaged. Drew Gilbert’s Emile has a quiet dignity and emotional transparency. Few scenes are more powerful than the devastation in his eyes at Nellie’s last departure in Act I. Amy Meek is a touching and resilient Nellie, who makes her struggle to accept de Becque’s mixed race children poignant and believable.

Matt O’Reilly brings anger and manic intensity to Cable. Even his big ballad, “Younger than Springtime,” expresses more angst than romance, and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” is contemptuous of his privileged and prejudiced upbringing. Ryan Peloquin’s Billis is hilarious as “Honey Bun” and affectingly tender in his scenes with Nellie, but more unhinged and dangerous than usual in his interactions with his officers and fellow sailors.

The standout vocal performance is Jami Witherell’s forceful Bloody Mary, whose melting “Bali Hai” and feather-light “Happy Talk” are musical highlights. And her comic timing with Billis and his mates is a hoot. The choral work of the ensemble is impressive throughout, the men in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and the women in “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.”

The hardworking eleven-piece band at stage left is appropriately bedecked with nurses’ or sailors’ caps. This entertaining South Pacific will delight and instruct audiences of all ages.