By Rodger Skidmore
New Keys and Islands drift towards Sarasota
Here’s something one can’t blame on Global Warming: the rapid shifting of tectonic plates from the South Pacific eastward into the Gulf of Mexico. They say it took over 500 million years for the bits and pieces of Gondwana and Laurasia to shift into their current positions around the world but it has taken less than a year for the Polynesian Islands of Bali Ha’i (Aoba Island) and Espiritu Santu to make their way into Sarasota Bay. They moved so rapidly that no one is certain as to whether they drifted around the southern tip of South America or snuck through the Panama Canal in the middle of the night.
In any case the first public sighting of these islands was in mid-October, fittingly enough, at Selby Botanical Garden’s Children’s Rainforest Garden. It was at this venue that the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific was announced. This show is part of an ongoing presentation of theater works entitled The American Character Project. Michael Edwards, the Producing Artistic Director, explained that this is the Asolo Rep’s 3rd season of showcasing classic American plays and musicals for the theatergoers of Sarasota and for those other theater buffs willing to make their way here for stunningly performed, thought provoking entertainment. Besides just talking about what the Asolo Rep was going to be doing, Mr. Edwards introduced those who were going to be doing this great American musical.
Starting things off was Loretta Ables Sayre, who jumped right in with a great rendition of Bloody Mary’s song “Bali Ha’i.” She probably knew what she was doing as she had received a Tony Award nomination for her recent Lincoln Center portrayal of Bloody Mary. That song was followed by an ensemble version of “Nothing Like A Dame” which was sung by the actors that portray the SeeBees (the Navy’s construction battalion) during the war in the Pacific. Pretty much all of the action takes place outdoors on the fictionalized version of the island of Espiritu Santu and it was a treat to see portions of the show performed outside in the tropical air of Selby Gardens.
These Polynesian Islands are best sighted at around 2 and 8 PM through December 28th at the Mertz Mainstage Theater at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory by the Ringling Museum. At the end of December they will probably drift away into the fog of the New Year, hopefully to be seen elsewhere.
In the Sarasota production everything was very Polynesian, including the theater’s giant curtain, which was made entirely of bamboo. There were seven or eight different sets with the action going back and forth between them multiple times. Set changes were counted in seconds because of the rotating stage and sliding scenery. No lag or interludes to slow down the action.
One could say this was a typical story of boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again. But it could also be a typical story of girl meets boy, girl wins ….etc. Yes, one could say this, but the facts are that the setting, backstory, multi-layered emotions, place and time make this musical anything but typical. A couple of other reason’s that it is not typical is that the show is based on short stories from the Pulitzer prize winning book Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener and that the musical won its own Pulitzer prize as well.
Singing, dancing, acting, sets: yes, this show has them all. Good? No. Great? Yes! Unless my memory is failing, I have never seen an actor as energetic as Kelly Felthous in her portrayal of Ensign Nellie Forbush. And everyone was on Pinza n’ needles listening to Ben Davis’ rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening.” He was spot on.
Most of the scenes had one backdrop: in the distance, a palm tree and, further away, lovely clouds over the water. Again, just like Sarasota. While the structure of the backdrop was similar, the local of the sets (Michael Schweikardt) were quite varied – from a veranda with formal dinner to the loading area for troop carriers. The lighting was also extremely effective (John Lasiter) as the clouds changed from white to the magic pink of our early evenings as the action moved from day to night.
While not on stage for as long as the adults, the actors that portray the son and daughter of a plantation owner, Emile De Becque, were quite effective and also central to the plot. They were, in part, the catalyst that brought the protagonists back together. That and, of course, Nellie and Emile’s essential goodness. Note: potential conflict of interest – there are two different actors that portray De Beque’s young daughter Ngana – Sophia Cavalluzzi who attends the Tracey Vita School of Dance and Milaan T. Smith who’s voice teacher is Franklyn Skidmore, this writer’s wife.
The Broadway and film versions of South Pacific have had full orchestras with over 30 musicians. This production has just eight. Could you tell? No. The orchestrations are so full and lush, with violin, cello, French horn, piano, bass, percussion and woodwinds, that conductor William Waldrop has no trouble keeping your ears in harmony with the action on stage.
One certainly needs to give tons of credit to director Rob Ruggiero, choreographer Ralph Perkins and all those other production people who put the show together and kept it going. And also to the co-producers here in Sarasota, without whose help none of this could have happened.
In keeping with this month’s musical theme we harken back to the days of Dean Martin. Not when he was fooling around with Jerry Lewis, but when he sang those lush Italian love songs. One of the song’s “That’s Amore’s” lines was “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie”. Not exactly Shakespeare but it did have a certain appeal to those who love and who love things Italian. Lovers of Italian food should be pleased to know that the old Mattison’s Steakhouse at the Plaza has reopened for dinner as Amore by Andrea. They will be featuring local organic vegetables balanced with meat, spices and other specialties from Italy in a contemporary Italian cuisine – a little more upscale than just pizza. Besides other improvements, an outdoor patio has been added.