It’s 7:45 p.m. outside the Baldwin Theatre in downtown Royal Oak. Children, couples and senior citizens congregate for a moment to enjoy the twilight sky. It is a beautiful May evening; humidity lingers from a recent thunderstorm and the smell of freshly mowed grass and aftershave perfumes the air. A lone smoker stands politely distant from the crowd. This is a family place.
Inside, the immaculate performance space buzzes with excited people preparing to take in Stagecrafters’ spring production of South Pacific. Especially festive attendees have even dressed the part: women wear flowers behind their ears while their male counterparts sport Hawaiian shirts. The antique-blue walls of the theater are decked with the signature opulence of a historic performance space and in the pit orchestra members wear colorful clothing and plastic leis. To stage left, a pretty harp player is surrounded by a mini-rain forest of fake palm trees and exotic silk flowers.
As the cadence of the overture begins, the overhead lights dim. The music changes tempo and slowly unfolds into the opening number. Two beautiful mocha-skinned girls in Polynesian-print sarongs enter and begin to dance and daintily sing: Dites-moi /Pourquoi/ La vie est belle/Dites-moi/ Pourquoi /La vie est gai/ Dites-moi/Pourquoi/ Chere Mad’moiselle/ Est-ce que/Parce que/ Vous m’aimez?
Loosely translated, the lyrics ask, “Tell me why life is beautiful — why is it so happy — it is because you love me?”
It’s Friday night, the work week has been long, and despite the appeal of the cherubic serenade, there’s a foreboding that this particular evening of musical theater just might be a bit too saccharin to choke down. Luckily, by the end of Scene I, the pace of the spunky cast manages to transform a potentially pedestrian sojourn into a full-fledged night on the town.
South Pacific, one of the most beloved of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musicals, has a simple premise. Adapted from James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, the production was first made popular on the stage in 1949 by the incomparable Mary Martin as the main character — a greenhorn Navy nurse by the name of Nellie Forbush — and on film in 1958 with über-blonde Mitzi Gaynor in the lead role. It is a sometimes fun, sometimes harsh look at the American military presence in the equatorial Pacific during World War II. Augmented by some of the most enduring songs in the American musical lexicon — “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” — this musical is definitely a giddy foray into the wonder and wiles of romance. Yet it also scrutinizes racial prejudices of the time.
Set in 1943 in the Solomon Islands, South Pacific is based on a military mission to undermine Japanese strongholds on surrounding islands. Behind the grave backdrop of war, four main characters act out two different love stories. The first romance is an unlikely coupling of the sophisticated Emile de Becque (Marc Meyers), a French horticulturist, and nurse Forbush (Patricia A. Raney). The second love affair unfolds between an American soldier, Lt. Joseph Cable (Bob Marselle), and native siren Liat (Natalie Malotke).
When de Becque is commissioned by the United States to aid in a very dangerous mission, he agrees only after being devastated by what he believes is the end of his relationship with Forbush. Accompanied by Lt. Cable, the two men bravely take on the task. Only one of them returns.
Even with the occasional bungled dance step and flubbed line, Stagecrafters’ production of South Pacific is a fun ride.
Raney’s depiction of Forbush is nothing short of adorable. Her singing is crisp and strong and her love of the old-school sound track is evident. Also exceptional is Meyers’ portrayal of de Becque. His flawless tenor voice and rueful stage presence adds an important maturity to a young cast.
So, will Royal Oak’s homegrown production of the Broadway hit be heralded as the sleeper tour de force of the year? Unlikely. But what Stagecrafters does nail is the spirit of musical theater — its importance to the tapestry of well-rounded community. Clearly, the actors put in countless hours learning complicated dance numbers and meaty soliloquies; and from box office reports, many of the Baldwin Theatre’s most loyal fans are season-ticket holders.
This Friday evening has been incredibly enchanting after all.
See Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific at the Baldwin Theatre (415 S. Lafayette, Royal Oak) Friday-Sunday until June 6th. Call 248-541-6430 for ticket information and show times.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]