For the first time in 30 years, the Footlight Players take center stage at the Dock Street Theatre. It’s quite a grand gesture for the Charleston institution, and a great way for Footlight to raise the curtain on its 80th season. Another great gesture is dedicating the run of South Pacific to the memory of the late Robert Ivey, who served as the company’s artistic director for many years and also contributed to this production.
It’s surprising that this is the first time South Pacific has been presented by the Footlight Players, because this is the kind of show the company is known for. And it’s definitely the kind of thing its audience wants to see: the opening night crowd was packed in tight.
The seminal musical takes place on two islands in the South Pacific during World War II. On the main island, the U.S. soldiers are wasting away, dying to get involved in some kind of action. They spend most of their time dreaming of the second island, Bali Ha’I, where exotic wares can be bought and women can be had.
The meat of the story is the love tale between French idealist Emile (played flatly by Paul Rivers) and cock-eyed optimist Nellie (an enchanting turn by Mary Fishburne Hayden). Their relationship is built on mutual zest for life, but the chemistry between the actors is very one-sided. Rivers never really advances Emile, keeping him a little too stiff and putting the bulk of the weight on Hayden’s shoulders. Luckily for the show, she’s more than equipped to carry the load. A new star shined in the Charleston firmament this night. Her vocal, physical, and emotional performances are all top-notch, even when the second act robs her of a role.
I would say that the second act of this play falls through, but that would be ... well, accurate. After a long first act (it runs about an hour and 40 minutes), the second act zips along at breakneck pace, but that’s mostly because the second half plots are undercooked and hastily served. Nellie and Emile’s relationship is thrown into inexplicable turmoil and resolved just as suddenly. A “dangerous” plan to jump-start the war in the Pacific is told in the most un-dramatic way possible. And the subplot featuring Lt. Joseph Cable (played by Joshua Christian) misses the mark and goes nowhere.
Most of these pitfalls are script issues. Rogers and Hammerstein crafted some of musical theater’s all-time classics, but this one feels unfinished. A few snags, however, are wasted opportunities to explore seedy territory that already exists on the page. Director Thomas Keating, who took over for Robert Ivey, has chosen to look on the bright side of life in this musical. As such, many of the potentially unsettling or uncomfortable subtexts of the script (and there are many) are ignored or downplayed, and thus lose impact. “Younger than Springtime,” sung by Christian to a young Polynesian girl, could have been a lonely man’s vulnerable and shameful admission of pleasure with a too-young girl who makes him feel like a kid again. It could have found beauty in the sordid, momentary escapes many soldiers in many wars have found with women they cannot love or hope to have. Instead, it’s just another love song.
It is, however, sung very well. Everything in this production is. The cast is made up of singers, and fine ones at that. Rivers misses the acting notes but hits the songs, and Hayden is a joy to listen to. Susie Hallatt, hilarious in her role as a Polynesian merchant named Bloody Mary, sports a great set of pipes. Even the chorus members sound great together (the boys in uniform singing “There’s Nothin’ Like a Dame” is a real treat).
It’s an interesting dichotomy, the things that work and the things that don’t in this show. There’s a feeling, watching South Pacific at the Dock Street, of new and old mashing up. New renovations, old theater. Old company, new productions. New Charleston faces, same old South Pacific script. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s inspiring, in a way, just to see the two mix it up. And it speaks volumes for the season ahead.