Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Consuming Passion

I'll Eat You Last: A Conversation with Sue Mengers -- TheaterWorks -- Thru Aug. 23

Karen Murphy as Sue Mengers. All photos by Lanny Nagler
A portrait of an especially engaging shark swimming in shark-infested waters is what we have in John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, which opened on Broadway in 2013 and is currently playing at TheaterWorks.

Who, many of you might ask, is, or was, Sue Mengers? Well, for those in the know about the lore of Tinsel Town, during the 60s and 70s she was a talent agent to be reckoned with, a hard-driving, deal-making, brash, acerbic woman who flourished with style and flair in a world dominated by men. During her reign as one of the people in Hollywood you always took calls from she represented, among many others, Julie Harris, Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Bob Fosse, Gene Hackman and both Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen, all of them her glittering, glistening stars floating in a manufactured firmament.

To give you an idea of Mengers’ personality, Bette Midler played the role in the Broadway production. Up in Hartford, it’s Karen Murphy’s task to realize this larger-than-life woman, which she does with kinetic, at times almost frantic energy, for throughout the 90 minutes of this one-act play, Murphy is in constant motion on the sofa that is the main prop in John Coyne’s period-evocative set design. Wearing a somewhat gaudy caftan, which she pulls at, rearranges, flutters and flounces, Murphy infuses Mengers with the unbridled energy familiar to anyone who has had to deal with a child on a sugar-high.

Set design by John Coyne

The frame for this walk down Mengers’ memory lane is that the talent agent is preparing to host a party, with the audience dealt with as interlopers, uninvited representatives of the star-struck, movie-going public with whom Menger condescends to speak before the stars arrive (at several points she actually solicits an audience member to be her servant – and he complies). This immediate dissolution of the fourth wall is, initially, a bit off-putting, and it takes a while to become comfortable with the play’s main conceit. It’s not until Murphy, down-shifting for a moment, relates Mengers’ history – escape from Hitler’s Germany, a father who commits suicide and a mother described merely as a Gorgon – that the character on stage begins to take hold of the audience’s imagination, becomes more than just someone spewing often venomous words. It is in this extended sequence that Murphy touchingly creates a defining moment in Mengers’ life: she is a shy schoolgirl embarrassed by her German accent who learns English by watching movies (starring Bette Davis, Gloria Swanson and Rosalind Russell) and eventually finds the courage to walk across the playground to introduce herself to the most popular girl in her class. This moment will become one of the play’s controlling metaphors.

Karen Murphy

The very nature of the play and its multiple references to actors and films of a by-gone era may well be self-limiting with regard to its audience appeal. As Murphy, in rapid-fire fashion, recounts interaction with, and “dishes the dirt” about, various stars, much of what she recounts may be lost on those who were born after President Johnson proclaimed the onset of the Great Society (that was early in 1965). Attention to and a complete understanding of the play requires a cultural literacy that may well be beyond many of those who are not yet ready for an AARP membership. As a college professor who has, on occasion, made references in class to Deliverance, Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection and Chinatown only to be met with blank stares (don’t even try saying “Rosebud” or “Frankly, Scarlett…”), I can attest to a general lack of awareness of filmic history that entails little more than vaguely remembering having seen Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption (both nominees for Best Picture in 1995). – might as well just stick with “Let it go!”

As with all one-person shows, there’s a certain ebb and flow to I’ll Eat You Last, and much of the ebb involves Murphy merely maintaining character, bitching and kvetching, but the flow moments, and there are several of them, are thoroughly engaging. The first is the aforementioned schoolgirl reminiscence – then there is Mengers in an extended phone conversation with Sissy Spacek, her confrontation with Bill Friedkin in an attempt (ultimately successful) to get Gene Hackman the iconic role of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (she suggests that Jackie Gleason was being considered for the role – yikes!), and her efforts to nudge Ali MacGraw back on track after the young actress married Steve McQueen (here Mengers paints an especially biting portrait of the star of The Magnificent Seven, The Sand Pebbles and The Great Escape). Then there is Mengers’ on-going relationship with Streisand, which is referred to and dramatized several times – it is, in fact, Streisand’s phone call that Mengers is waiting for throughout the play, a phone call that will confirm that the star is leaving Mengers (as have many of her other clients – sic simper!).

As already noted, it takes a while for Mengers’ character to come into focus, but when it does there is a certain bittersweet quality to it, and to the agent’s life as a whole. Director Don Stephenson has chosen to allow Murphy to basically rush down the tracks of Mengers’ life, an express train when, perhaps, it should have been a local, giving the audience the opportunity to assess what they have seen before rushing off to the next destination. There are, however, fleeting moments when the inherent superficiality of Mengers’ life-long pursuit of fame and fortune flicker to the fore and you get the sense that beneath the brash exterior is a frightened child who never really overcame the trauma of her formative years. Yes, that child walked across the playground, but the adult she became apparently felt compelled to continue to find playgrounds to walk across, constantly testing acceptance. It’s there in Logan’s play and in Murphy’s performance, but you have to look for it, see beyond the cigarette smoke and booze and marijuana and non-stop chatter and put-downs to the quivering guppy hiding beneath the impressive shark fa├žade.


I’ll Eat You Last runs through August 23. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org  

Saturday, July 18, 2015

At "La Cage" -- No Surprises but a Lot of Fun

La Cage aux Folles -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Extended Thru Sept. 10

The Cagelles. All Photos by Diane Sobolewski
One thing you can count on is that Goodspeed Musicals knows how to produce a musical. Another thing you can count on is that director Rob Ruggiero knows how to stage a musical. Thus, it’s almost a sure bet that, by and large, you will enjoy La Cage aux Folles, which recently opened at the Goodspeed Opera House. You may come away a little less than satisfied, but that has more to do with the structure of the musical, written by Harvey Fierstein, with music by Jerry Herman, than it does with the current production.

Based on the 1973 play by Jean Poiret and a 1978 film, the musical opened on Broadway in 1983 and garnered nine Tony nominations. It has enjoyed several revivals, again receiving Tony honors, and is often produced in regional theaters. The plot revolves around the owners of “La Cage,” a St. Tropez nightclub that features transvestite dancers dubbed the Cagelles. At the cabaret, a long-time couple, Georges (James Lloyd Reynolds) runs the business, while Albin (Jamison Stern), as Zaza, is the fading, somewhat hyper-sensitive star of the show.

Jamison Stern and James Lloyd Reynolds

Complications arise for the couple when Georges son, Jean-Michel (Conor Ryan), the result of a one-night stand Georges had many years ago with a show girl, returns home to announce that he is going to get married to Anne (Kristen Martin), the daughter of Marie (Stacey Scotte) and Edouard Dindon (Mark Zimmerman), who are on their way for a visit to meet Jean-Michel’s family. The major stumbling block is that Dindon is the leader of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party,” an organization that does not take too kindly to the “La Cage” lifestyle. Jean-Michel pleads that, for at least 24 hours, his “family,” which includes Jacob (Cedric Leiba, Jr.), a very eccentric maid/butler, become more “traditional.”

Georges can pull it off, but Zaza is, well, Zaza, so Georges and Jean-Michel initially ask Albin not to be present, but after Albin pulls a hissy fit, Georges relents and suggests that Albin transform himself into Uncle Albert. The ensuing transformation and visit by the Dindon’s turns into a controlled farce, with tables and genders being turned and everything working out for the best in the end.

James Lloyd Reynolds and Cedric Leiba, Jr.

The problem, if there is one, is that all of this rushes towards a whisper (and a kiss) rather than a bang. Over the evening, there are numerous “wow-the-crowd” numbers, interspersed with more intimate ballads, and this stellar cast ably performs both. If La Cage ended with the much-anticipated and wonderfully rendered “I Am What I Am” number, which closes the first act, there would be emotional closure of sorts, or if it ended with “The Best of Times,” it would leave the audience exiting on an emotional high, but it doesn’t do either, and, as written, it can’t, so we go into the second act, which has its moments but then devolves, at least in this production (and many others), into a rather confusing visual pastiche that is less of a resolve than an attempt to wrap it all up in a neat little package.

That being said, you can’t deny that this “La Cage” delivers exactly what the show is meant to deliver: camp, comedy and sentimentality. There are no surprises (for those who have seen the show before) but many delights. Right from the initial reveal of the Cagelles in “We Are What We Are,” you know you are in good hands. Stern’s transformation in “A Little More Mascara” can’t help but elicit enthusiastic applause, and his paean to self-actualization, “I Am What I Am” is flawless. Then there is the second act’s “Masculinity” number, and again, with Reynolds as straight man, Stern has a field day as a gay man trying to adopt the persona of John Wayne. Lieba, Jr. is delightfully over-the-top, as his character demands, Martin is lithe and lovely as Anne, Sue Mathys is expressively “French” as Jacqueline, a local bistro owner, and Ryan is eager and earnest as Jean-Michel. For the price of a ticket, you really can’t ask for more.

Conor Ryan and James Lloyd Reynolds

As good as Ruggiero is, however, as director he hasn’t been able to figure out how to successfully stage the musical’s helter-skelter penultimate scene or the show’s resolution, to focus the audience’s eyes on what is important (perhaps only the medium of film can do this successfully). There are just too many perspectives to consider and too much going on. The fault, mainly, lies in the book, and you have to work with what you’ve got, but one can only wonder what might have been if Ruggiero had said, “What if…?” and acted on the answers that came to his very creative and theater-savvy mind.


La Cage aux Folles has been extended through Sept, 10. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.   

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Take Some Xanax

Xanadu -- Connecticut Repertory Theatre -- Thru July 19

The cast of Xanadu, All Photos by Gerry Goodstein.
Well, let’s see. First it was a film, released in 1980, that bombed, although it did achieve a certain cult classic status – people reveled in just how bad it was. Then, like the phoenix, it rose from the ashes to appear, in a much transmogrified form, on Broadway in 2007, running for over 500 performances, in the process receiving an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, a Drama Desk Award for Best Book and several Tony nominations, which just goes to prove that critics, as well as the ticket-buying public, sometimes can’t see the forest for the stardust in their eyes. The musical is Xanadu, and no matter how you cut it, dice it or stage it, there’s just not much to shout about (but there is the opportunity to shudder or slumber occasionally). In its current manifestation at UCONN’s Connecticut Repertory Theater – the last entry in the venue’s Nutmeg Summer Series – it sits up there on the stage like a gilded, bespangled extra from The Walking Dead. Why CRT chose this less than gripping (or coherent) musical to wrap up its summer season is a head-scratcher. Perhaps those in charge had “drunk the milk of Paradise,” and thus thought it was a really good idea.

The musical has many forbears. Yes, there’s the 1980 film that did nothing for Olivia Newton-John’s career (she is, by the way, an Australian native – more about this later),
Lurking somewhere in its DNA is not only Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem but the 1941 film Heaven Can Wait, which spawned the 1947 film Down to Earth, and it has at least a kissing relationship to the 1948 film One Touch of Venus and, as acknowledged by Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the book for the musical, it also owes a debt, such as it is, to the 1981 over-casted film Clash of the Titans.

So, what it this mish-mash musical about? Well, you see, there’s this California street chalk artist named Sonny Malone (Luke Hamilton) who has just drawn this mural depicting the Greek Muses, but he’s disheartened because he feels it isn’t up to par, and in true artist fashion he decides to kill himself by jumping off a bridge. But among the depicted muses (here there’s some nifty projection work by scenic and projection designer Tim Brown), Clio (Amandina Altomare) – the Muse of history or, alternatively, the Muse of lyre playing (they could have it both way back in those days) – takes pity on the struggling artist. She comes to life, followed by her seven (there should be eight, but what the hell) “sisters” – the Greek god Zeus had all daughters, but there’s some gender-bending here – again, what the hell – and decides to take human form to save the artist. She suggests to her sisters what form she should take: she will call herself Kira, wear leg warmers, roller skates (hey, this is Southern California circa 1980!) and speak like an Australian. The sisters applaud her idea; they’ve apparently also been drinking the “milk of Paradise.”

Amandina Altomare 
However, there’s an impediment to Clio’s good intentions in the form of two of her sisters, Melpomemem (Arian Shore – who will also appear as Medusa), and Calliope (Steve Hayes, who will later appear as Aphrodite). They are jealous of Clio, so they plot to piss off Zeus by casting a spell that will have Clio not only fall in love with a mortal but also create art on her own, both of which are down in Zeus’s book of no-no’s for his daughters (a father, after all, has to set limits for his daughters).

Steve Hayes and Arian Shore
Clio saves Sonny and inspires him to become a true artist by creating…a roller disco (I kid you not). Standing in the way of this august artistic plan is Danny Maguire (Dirk Lombard), a man who, many years ago, was visited by Clio and inspired by her to create a multi-arts theater named “Xanadu,” but, alas, his urge to make money overwhelmed his artistic leanings and Clio, in a hissy fit (Muses are like that) left him.

To cut to the chase, the Muse and the mortal fall in love, Danny reacquires his “Gotta dance!” persona, Zeus, after a lot of thunderbolt grumbling, gives Clio/Kira what she wants, and everyone celebrates at Xanadu.

The basic problem with this musical comedy, with music and lyrics by Jeff Lyonne and John Farrar, with some borrowings from the Electric Light Orchestra and a reworking of Farrar’s “Have You Never Been Mellow,” is that it yearns to be a farce. As such, it would have had the focus, sharpness and a biting edge that it lacks. By the time the farcical elements are introduced (references to classic mythology, musical theater and films), it’s too late. Those in the audience who catch the references may chuckle a bit, but since the farce and satire haven’t been framed from the beginning, most in the audience simply don’t know what is going on, or could care less.

Then there’s the Aussie spin, obviously originally put in to cater to and play on Newton-John’s heritage. However, it presents a task that Altomare is simply not up to and shouldn’t have been asked to shoulder. With the removal of a few brief lines, she could have played it straight, and much of her dialogue would have been both heard and understood. Given the charge to “talk Aussie,” she often sounds like a Cockney bar maid who suffers from dyslexia.

When Altomare isn’t being “Aussie,” she’s charming, as is Hamilton as Sonny, but there’s really no chemistry between the two characters, regardless of the love hex, mainly because the script doesn’t allow for anything more than basic boy meets goddess. In fact, there’s a lot of talent up there on the stage but, alas, it’s put to poor use. Since there is little or no connection between the songs sung and the plot, such as it is, this turns out to be more of a revue than a musical, with songs that don’t rise much above the mundane and choreography by Cassie Abate that often seems to have the cast just going through the motions.

At least since Show Boat and Oklahoma, there have been coherent and often striking reasons why characters in musicals burst out into song or start dancing. Think of “Maria” from West Side Story, “Soliloquy” from Carousel, “Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd, “Being Alive” from Company, and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray, to name just a few examples. The problem with Xanadu is that there’s really little or no reason for the actors to sing the songs they do or dance their numbers. It’s all gratuitous. You have to give credit to this talented cast for fighting the good fight and trying to bring life to an essentially moribund musical which has, at its heart, nothing more than the echoes of other artistic efforts.


Xanadu runs through July 19. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Time, Time, Time -- See What's Become of Me

Time Stands Still -- New Milford TheatreWorks -- Thru Aug. 

Alicia Dempster, Will Jeffries, Erin Shaighnessy and Aaron Kaplan.
All Photos by Richard Pettibone

It’s easy to see why Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, which opened on Broadway in 2010 and garnered several Tony nominations, is a favorite of regional and local theaters (there have been recent productions at Stratford’s Square One and Hartford’s TheaterWorks). With its unit set and four characters, it is relatively economical to produce, plus its classic form – exposition – rising action – climax – and denouement – is comfortable territory for most playgoers. Add to this the tightly drawn characters and the contemporary themes and you have all the ingredients for a crowd-pleaser, and those who make their way up to New Milford TheatreWorks will, by and large, be rewarded. As directed by Sonnie Osborne, this two-act examination of relationships and moral ambiguities both challenges and entertains.

Set in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, loft, the play opens with Sarah (Alicia Dempster) and James (Aaron Kaplan) returning home from Germany, where Sarah has been convalescing after being severely injured by an explosion of a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq. She is a photojournalist – he is a journalist – and they bear the physical and psychological scars of their chosen professions. After their return, what unfolds is a multi-layered examination of the nature of human commitment and need as well as a struggle to define the moral parameters of those who are charged with observing and recording mankind’s compelling need to destroy itself in the name of whatever “ism” is au courant.

Aaron Kaplan and Alicia Dempster


As a counterpoint to Sarah and James’ relationship – an 8-year tentative and testy partnership-with-rights seasoned (and sexually stimulated by) individual and mutual horrific experiences – is the May-September romance of Richard (Will Jeffries) and Mandy (Erin Shaughnessy), he a long-time friend of both Sarah and James and a photo editor for a magazine, a man who has walked around the romantic block several times, and she a somewhat jejune event planner who could easily be his daughter. Not to put too facile an interpretation on this duality, the two couples seem to evoke the yin and yang, the darkness and light that both haunts and defines relationships, for Sarah and James, in both their professional and personal lives, deal with death and the end of things, while Richard and Mandy, as incongruous as their relationship may seem, embrace life and the possibility of new beginnings.

This may all seem like grim stuff, and some of it is, what with descriptions of women and children blown apart, flesh and blood coating the eyes and clothes of the observer, but there is a thread of humor that runs through the play, driven mainly by Sarah and James’ take on their friend’s new relationship, captured early on by a delightful double-beat of silence, complete with diverted eyes and evocative facial expressions, followed by Richard’s explosive, two-word profanity that never fails to jolt and delight the audience.

As Sarah, Dempster gives a nuanced performance, showing us both the hard carapace that allows her to do what she does and the fragility and uncertainty that lurk beneath. She is an independent, prickly-pear, a woman who captures, in photo after photo, man’s inhumanity to man, and to do so she must shut herself off from innate emotions – she must continuously argue against that part of herself that wishes what she chronicles would be otherwise. Her camera is her apotropaic defense, for as she intimately captures carnage there is always a lens between her and horrific reality. Hers is a demanding yet fulfilling role, and Dempster fills it admirably, using not only her voice but body language to convey the conflictions that beset her character.

Alicia Dempster, Aaron Kaplan, Erin Shaughnessy and Will Jeffries


Kaplan, who plays somewhat of a weathervane character (i.e., one the audience uses to measure where the moral center of the play resides), gives James that needed sense of reaching the end of the road while, at the same time, thirsting for new beginnings. His task is to reveal the psychological toll taken on men and women who, assignment after assignment, must objectively report on the horror while, at the same time, yearn for a supportive, intimate relationship with a woman who must keep her emotions in check, who weighs commitment against vulnerability, whose style of communication, when she deigns to speak, is both terse and acerbic, who folds her arms across her chest to protect herself from the possibility of caring. Kaplan is extremely successful in conveying frustration, righteous indignation and an underlying need to experience a life that is not defined by death, whose idea of sharing a life encompasses more than enabling.

As the two actors slowly yet effectively develop their characters, Marguiles script builds an emotional pressure cooker that eventually explodes near the end of the second act, and it is here that Dempster and Kaplan especially shine as all of the raw emotions that they have hinted at yet repressed now flare. It’s primal theater, enhanced by the lighting design of Richard Pettibone and Scott Wyshynski, for as Dempster and Kaplan engage their characters for a final confrontation of need, fear and desire, the lighting subtly changes, diminishes, focusing the audience’s eyes on the battle – the set, also designed by Pettibone and Wyshynski, falls away and we are left with two people fighting to define themselves and their relationship, trying to find common ground in a world of shifting sands.

As the somewhat bemused, avuncular friend, Jeffries is perfect as a man of a certain age who, tired of having to justify himself to maintain a relationship in which choosing a restaurant is a matter of “arbitration,” simply wants to revel in the youth and exuberance of his newest partner. He creates a nice counterpoint to the inherent turbulence Sarah and James are experiencing, for he gives us a man who is both world-weary and accepting, a man who has found a final harbor, and though it may be imperfect, he is satisfied to moor there, sails furled, bobbing on the gentle waves that Mandy creates.

Mandy (originally played by Alicia Silverstone in the play’s first production at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2009) is a tough role to capture, for she must initially seem to be, if not witless, at least unseasoned, a babe in the woods who eventually finds her focus in motherhood while, at the same time, challenging Sarah’s philosophy of necessary neutrality in the face of human suffering. Shaughnessy, lithe and pretty, physically embraces the role, but she often seems to be skimming the surface of her character, aware of whom she is supposed to be playing rather than simply being the character. She is not helped by Osborne’s direction, which is almost faultless throughout the evening save for Mandy’s confrontation scene late in the second act, for Osborne has the actress – or allows the actress – to break eye contact with her fellow actors, totally opening up (i.e., facing the audience) and delivering her lines as if they are a soliloquy, substantially diminishing their emotional impact.

Quibbles aside, TheatreWorks has boarded a gripping take on Margulies’ excursion into the heart of contemporary darkness. The intimacy of the theater can’t help but heighten the audience’s involvement with these four characters as they struggle to define themselves and their relationships. The play’s final moment, sans dialogue, captures the voyeuristic nature of our society, though it would have been enhanced with a flash before blackout rather than a mere whirring focus of a lens -- a punctuation that startles -- but there’s enough here to engage and generate drive-home discussions about those who deliver the images and words that capture the terror, hatred and dread that taints our 21st-century world (and the toll it takes on them), and those who consume these images as they thumb through magazines or idly watch the evening news while dining on take-out.


Time Stands Still runs through August 1. For tickets or more information call 860-350-6863 or go to www.theatreworks.us. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Supremely Satisfying "South Pacific"

South Pacific -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru July 28

 Adrianne Hick and David Pittsinger. 
 All photos by Roger Williams
                                           

It opened on Broadway in 1949. with the horrors and triumphs of World War II still fresh in playgoers’ minds. A smash hit, it was not without controversy, with the composer, Richard Rodgers, and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, being pressured to remove one song: “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” They refused, and South Pacific, based on James Mitchener’s Tales of the South Pacific, went on to join “Oklahoma” as classics of the American stage, glistening examples of what has been called the “Golden Era” of American musicals.

Since the musical’s opening it has been seen by millions of American either in its Broadway iterations (most recently in 2008, starring Kelli O’Hara), a somewhat color-drenched 1958 film directed by Joshua Logan, numerous road-show productions, in regional and local efforts, and many high school productions. Thus, it is familiar territory, even for those who are only occasional theatergoers, and this means that any new production faces high expectations and a demand that it be faithful, as much as possible, to what people remember and cherish. It’s my pleasure to report the production that recently opened at Ivoryton Playhouse meets and exceeds expectations, offering two-plus hours of sheer enchantment.

    William Selby and R. Bruce Connelly
As deftly directed by David Edwards, who also choreographed the show, this production satisfies on just about every level, with a cast that, with minor exceptions, makes you forget any who have come before them. The major draw, going in, was the Playhouse’s good fortune to cast David Pittsinger as the French planter, Emile de Becque, and his wife, Patricia Shuman, as Bloody Mary. For Ivoryton, these are big names – Pittsinger is a renowned performer who has been seen in major opera houses, concert halls and on Broadway, and Schuman has similar credits, having sung leading roles in opera, at festivals and on concert stages.


Peter Carrier, Patricia Schuman and Annelise Cepero
The stage they are currently treading may be small in comparison to where they have performed before, but their performances are larger than life. Pittsinger, with his resonating bass-baritone voice and commanding stage presence, is de Becque personified, and when he sings “Some Enchanted Evening” or “This Nearly Was Mine,” you simply hold your breath so as not to disturb the wonderful sound that envelops you.

Equally satisfying is Schuman’s performance as the foul-mouthed, entrepreneurial Bloody Mary. If you didn’t read the program you would never know that she is famous for portraying Mozart heroines, for her Bloody Mary is as crass (“Stingy bastards!”) and down-to-earth as you could wish for, yet her operatic training lends a luminous quality to “Bali Hai” and a lilting loveliness to “Happy Talk.”

Ensign Nellie Forbush (Hick) and the nurses

One would think that with Pittsinger and Schuman on the stage they couldn’t help but dominate both the eye and the ear, but such is not the case, for as satisfying as their performances are, they are overshadowed by Adrianne Hick’s lead performance as Nellie Forbush. She is, quite simply, a delight, for she totally captures the role of the “hick” nurse from Little Rock who is initially overwhelmed by de Becque’s attention but then succumbs to inbred racist tendencies to reject him, only to realize that her heart must win out over her upbringing.

Adrianne Hick and Peter Carrier

Some actresses can sing the role, while other actresses can act the role, but Hick does both with style, aplomb and an infectious glee that makes you yearn for and anticipate her next appearance on stage. One senses that with each of her numbers – “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy” and “Honey Bun” – the audience had to restrain itself from calling for encores. She’s just that good.

Artistic director Jacqueline Hubbard has assembled a large cast for this production, but Edwards seems not to have been daunted by the numbers versus space ratio. His use of the stage (and the aisles) is both creative and effective, no more so than in the penultimate number, a reprise of “Honey Bun” as marines, sailors and nurses ship out to a combat zone. Somewhat reminiscent of the “shipping out” scene in Milos Forman’s film version of “Hair,” Edwards has the cast members march, singing the humorous “Honey Bun” number but moving to the persistent beat of a drum, onto the stage to form a V, then descend the center stairs into the darkened house until the stage, for a moment, is empty. It’s staging that makes a point without having to say a word.  

Anyone who has been to Ivoryton knows that the stage is somewhat limited, but thanks to lighting designer Marcus Abbott and scenic designer Daniel Nischan, Ivoryton’s stage becomes as large as the Pacific Ocean itself – it shimmers, it broods, it glistens – and, given Tate Burmeister’s sound design, it often rumbles with the sound of surf and rattles with the roar of planes flying overhead. These creative efforts add to the luminous and engaging quality of the show and help make the evening as satisfying as it is.

Upon hearing that Ivoryton had chosen to stage South Pacific, one might have thought that the venerable venue had perhaps bitten off more than it could chew. One would have been wrong. This production is a gem with multiple star-turns, a stellar supporting cast that includes R. Bruce Connelly as the pugnacious Capt. Brackett and William Selby as the irrepressible Luther Billis, and a “vision” of what South Pacific should be that everyone involved has obviously bought into. And then there’s Adrianne Hick’s performance, one that, in itself, makes it worth the drive out to the tiny, picturesque town of Ivoryton.


South Pacific runs through July 26. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.