The city of Dexter’s Encore Theatre has had a history of putting on enjoyable musical theatre for eight years now and its latest offering, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic, South Pacific, follows that tradition. The musical, set during World War II, tells the story of young Navy nurse, Nellie Forbush, and the French planter, Emile de Becque, with whom she falls in love. Emile, it turns out, has some secrets that may crush their chance at happiness.
Performance Network Theatre’s former artistic director, Carla Milarch, is directing South Pacific and overall, she stages the show very well. However, there was awkwardness to the staging at times. Sometimes the actors are facing each other so much that they exclude the audience from the full experience of the scene, and at other times there were actors standing with their backs completely to the audience.
Richard Rodger’s music was wonderful and the orchestra, directed by Eastern Michigan University professor and musical director R. Mackenzie Lewis was wonderful as well. They sounded somewhat thin and distant, but in a small space like the Encore, more musicians would have been overpowering for the singers.
Though the show has its issues, Encore’s production went far beyond merely doing the best they could with what they were given, and breathed new life into a show that needed a fresh approach.
The show is not perfect; the songs are often strangely short and not spread out well over the whole show, and some of the themes and issues in the musical are either dated or all too reminiscent of ones we face today. There is some thinly veiled sexism that, in 1949 when the show premiered, would have been considered normal, but now is slightly cringe-worthy.
There is also an underlying theme of racism; Nellie’s biggest difficulty in her relationship with Emile is that he has two children from a previous marriage to a Polynesian woman. However, by the end of the show, Nellie’s realized that she loves the children and doesn’t mind that their mother was not white.
Marlene Inman has the most challenging role as Nellie, who goes through perhaps the biggest character development in the show. She carries herself well in the more intense scenes, and is charming and funny in the more light-hearted moments. Her voice is gorgeous, especially during “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”
Stephen West, professor and chair of the department of voice at the University of Michigan, who has sung opera at the Met and La Scala, returns to the Encore for the third time. Last year he was Javert in Les Miserables, and in 2012 he had a glorious and moving turn as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof, in which he co-starred with Inman.
Vocally, West is superb as Emile and his acting is vibrant throughout. The chemistry between him and Inman is one of the best things about the show.
The supporting cast is uniformly very good. A particular standout is Matthew Brennan as Luther Billis, a sailor who provides most of the comic relief in the show, but who also proves to be a brave and compassionate soldier. Brennan is very natural in the role and in addition to his comedic talents, he makes Billis a character with weight and depth.
Bloody Mary, the only civilian on the island, sells exotic trinkets and engages in flirtatious banter with the sailors, and Gayle E. Martin imbues her with humor, moxie, and vulnerability.
Sebastian Gerstner, a terrific Encore mainstay, is not given a very meaty role in Lt. Joseph Cable, but he gives a very straightforward, honest performance. The rest of the ensemble provide strong backbone to the story, especially the women.
South Pacific will be running at the Encore through July 3.