Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Narrows Community Theater's production of South Pacific at the Fort Hamilton Army Base Theater by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg

This review of Narrows Community Theater's production of South Pacific at the Fort Hamilton Army Base Theater was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II & Joshua Logan
Adapted from James A. Michener's "Tales Of The South Pacific"
Directed by Michael Chase Gosselin
Musical Director: Paolo C. Perez
Costume Directors: MaryJo Tipaldo & Rita Donahue
Narrows Community Theater
Fort Hamilton Army Base Theater
101st Street & Fort Hamilton Parkway
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY 11209
Reviewed 11/14/15 

Last Saturday night, I saw South Pacific at Narrows Community Theater inside the Fort Hamilton Army Base. This excellent production brought back several memories regarding how I became a lover of Broadway musicals.

First of all, I actually read Tales Of The South Pacific by James A. Michener before I realized it had been made into a musical. Tales Of The South Pacific is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which is a collection of nineteen sequentially related short stories about World War II, written by James A. Michener in 1946 and published in 1947. The stories were based on observations and anecdotes he collected while stationed as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Islands (now known as Vanuatu). James Michener, as an officer, narrates the stories from the building of an airfield in 1942 to the invasion of some of the islands in 1944 by American armed forces in the South Pacific Theater of World War II. I remember enjoying each story, some of which had bitter-sweet endings. Like Sloan Wilson's The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, James Michener was able to evoke men at war trying to live their lives as carefree as possible knowing that they could die at any moment. Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1946. He would go on to write many best-selling novels of which I consider The Source to be the most memorable after Tales Of The South Pacific.

In adapting various tales in the book into a musical in 1949, the plot was simplified and made more coherent. Characters from the stories were merged to better serve the format of a musical. For example, Emile de Becque, the planter is a widower with a son and daughter from a marriage with a native instead of eight daughters from four different native women that he never bothered to marry. In the original novel, the coast watcher is an English expatriate whose head is impaled on a stake instead of Emile de Becque reporting the heroic death of American Marine Lt. Cable. Joshua Logan not only produced and directed the musical, but he also assisted Richard Rodgers, who wrote the music, and Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the lyrics. Following up on Hammerstein and Rodgers earlier collaboration in the creation of Oklahoma!, the musical interludes and choreography flow smoothly to advance the story. 

I took the opportunity to look up the original New York Times review by Brooks Atkinson. Even back then, Myron McCormick as the scheming Luther Billis, the Seabee, stole the show from Ensign Nellie Forbush, played by Mary Martin, and Emile de Becque, played by Enzo Pinza. Atkinson thought Juanita Hall, the Tonkonese entrepreneur, was outstanding in singing "Bali Ha'i'." He complimented Jo Mielziner in recreating the South Pacific in her stage design. Atkinson concluded in his review, "South Pacific is as lively, warm, fresh and beautiful as we all hoped it would be."  

When the movie version of South Pacific was released in 1958, I was then at Knolls Summer Day Camp. There, the musical was adapted to highlight our ability to swim towards the end of the summer encampment. Different songs were used for different age groups as we demonstrated our aquatic abilities before our parents. We enjoyed singing and swimming. Our parents applauded both our aquatic and thespian talents. Ever since, the film has been a popular favorite for theater-goers of all ages. As for the play, at least twenty community theater groups performed South Pacific in 2015 alone. In a way, the musical personifies the plural nature of American society that idealizes itself as welcoming all comers to the American dream. More than anything else, this was the musical that made me fall in love with Broadway show music. The movie won the 1958 Oscar for Best Sound. I had an uncle who worked for Irving Berlin as a marketing manager. He traded with some of his buddies in the business so he could give me this movie soundtrack version of the musical that I grew up with. 

The Narrows Community Theater production of South Pacific took place in the Fort Hamilton Army Base Theater, a modern facility that can comfortably seat 470 people. I would estimate that more than 350 people were in the audience. The seats were cushy, wide, and comfortable. I sat in the back where I could easily see the action on the stage. The spot lights were handled seamlessly by Ashley Kelly and John Shin. The lighting design by Michael Chase Gosselin and Carmine Pizzarusso made it easy to see the action. The sound design by Steve Jacobs and the sound technology was expertly handled by Chiara Pizzarusso, Kevin Sweeney, Michael Wysokowski, and Allison Greaker so the sound was audible and clear without overwhelming your ears. The set design by Marla Gotay, Michael Chase Gosselin, and Patrick Nash, and set dressing by Camille Gallager, Marla Gotay, and Michael Vitucci placed you in the South Pacific. The stage crew of Robin Brazelton, Toni Franco, Fiona Gelderman, and Stephanie Kokeas smoothly made the changes of scenery and set design as the musical played out.

Paolo C. Perez expertly conducted the orchestra, which included himself on Keyboard 1, Terry Hanson on Keyboard 2, Marla Gotay on flute, Matan Uchen on trombone, Bobby Crow on cello, Renia Shukis and Daisuke Suziki on violin, Caitlin Featherstone on trumpet, Jared Newlen on clarinet, and Andrew Wagner on bass. 

Concessions were handled quite efficiently by Mary Lian and Frank Togni. The prices were quite reasonable: soda for a dollar; cookies and crackers for fifty cents; and candy bars and potato chips for a dollar. Margaret McMahon and MaryJo Tipaldo were busy selling souvenir merchandise from past shows such as the hat from Seusical and teeshirts promoting Narrows Community Theater.

Marla Gotay, as the producer, did an outstanding job in bringing all this talent together. Michael Chase Gosselin, as director and choreographer, brought out the best from the actors and choreographed the numbers superbly. Jenna Marie Sparacio and Denise Higgins-Regan were excellent stage managers. Several times, actors came from various directions in the auditorium to come on the stage.

Above all, the actors/singers/dancers made the show the success it was. The casting was superb because not a single false note was heard. Their performances were flawless. Bloody Mary was boldly and brassily played by Hiroko Yonehura. The musical contains a song with a line about how "you have to be carefully taught to hate." The cast reflected the multicultural, tolerant society we idealize. Unfortunately, the song is not out of date and is still relevant today. Keith Gregor as Emile de Becque was at his best in describing the death of Lt. Cable, U.S. Marine Corps, played by Max Baudisch. Maranda Rossi convincingly portrayed an anguished Ensign Nellie Forbush tormented by her feelings of romantic love as well as by the racial prejudice deeply instilled in her. Bennett Silverstein proved to be a memorable Luther Billis (hang on to those coconut shells!) The male and female ensembles of supporting actors were equally flawless in their presentation.

The audience saw a show that fully deserved the accolade of their enthusiastic applause. This is community theater at its best. The production of South Pacific by Narrows Community Theater is the most impressive community theater show I have seen so far this year in the New York City metropolitan area. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur, "I shall return." For information on upcoming productions of Narrow Community Theater, visit 

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