BALI’HA’I AND BLOODY MARY BRING THE CLASSIC RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN CHARM TO WOODMINSTERS SUMMER SEASON
The warm beaches of SOUTH PACIFIC have taken over the Oakland hills as Woodminster Summer Musicals continues to celebrate their 51st season. Bloody Mary and sailor Seabee Luther Billis are currently setting sail to Bali Ha’i in a very vintage bright production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC through August 13th at the outdoor Woodminster stage. Director Joel Schlader say’s, “After Mamma Mia, it may seem like our season is taking a more serious turn with South Pacific. This is a show with a lot of depth and texture or it wouldn’t still be a musical theater standard almost 70 years after its original Broadway opening. But it has also survived because it has humor and heart and it’s vastly entertaining. It’s a war story, but it’s about characters the audience will root for and enjoy. The people in the story wrestle with moral decisions, fall in love with people they didn’t intend to fall in love with, and show courage in the face of fearful events. Also, there’s a lot of really great singing and dancing and some of the best melodies ever written.” Director Schlader who was in past productions when his dad directed the show back in the 70’s - appears in this cast as Commander Harbison.
The cast includes some Woodminster vets: Chris Vettal, Edward Hightower, Rod Votaire Edora, Kelty Morash, Randy Burke, Todd Schlader (his 102nd appearance) and inhouse music director Daniel Thomas. Adapted from James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Tales of the South Pacific," the action takes place on two tropical South Seas islands during World War II. The parallel romantic stories of two couples are set against the background of the boredom and danger of war in a green paradise.
U.S. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush played by the marvelous Amanda Johnson is a self-described hick from Arkansas who is swept off her feet by older, suave French plantation owner, Emile de Becque, played by the dapper local favorite Chris Vettel. Marine pilot, Princeton graduate upper class family Lt. Joe Cable is played by the handsome Joshua Marx, who is smitten with Liat played by the elegant Sarah Pon, a young native girl and daughter of the savvy Bloody Mary played by Jeffrie Givens. As they all try to seek happiness and meaning in a place far from home, they are forced to confront their racism and deal with what matters most in their lives, family and love.
Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics and with Joshua Logan's book, it was groundbreaking in its day. Its discussion of racial prejudice, and tolerance were not the routine topics of Broadway musicals in 1949 and it gave SOUTH PACIFIC a timeless importance that is still relevant today. The score by Rodgers contains icon classics, "Some Enchanted Evening," "There is Nothin' Like a Dame," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "A Wonderful Guy" and "Younger Than Springtime." In Schlader’s version, it is the novelty songs and ensemble numbers that are endearing and in simple ideal form. Emile's children Ngana and Jerome, are played the adorable Juliet Newman and Aisla Villarreal. They both aspiringly sing "Dites-Moi" to open the first act.
The Navy Seabees are animated and fun in "Nothin' Like a Dame," letting us know just how lonely and frustrated they feel. There are various opinions if SOUTH PACIFIC is a dance show, I have seen some amazing high stepping for this musical, but choreographer Jane Mason kept this company in simple dance line mode. Schlader based the charm of the show not on dance but the talent of his leads Hightower, Vettel and Johnson.
SOUTH PACIFIC offers moments of lighthearted entertainment with spirited comic scenes charged by the pent-up energy of the bored Navy Seabees and the scheming island boss, Bloody Mary, with charmingly amateurish dance routines, and a fine balance of wholesomeness. On the political subtext the show’s concerns are serious - it builds up an exquisite tension of one of the plot’s main devices; a spy mission to a Japanese-held island nearby at a time when World War II still is going badly for the Allies. The story makes subtle points about the social roots of prejudice and the costs of war.
As Nellie, Amanda Johnson lays the hick accent on thicker at some times than others, but not in a way that sounds inauthentic. It’s a matter of elgance, as in her lovely vocal “A Cockeyed Optimist,” her tone remains clear, warm and utterly charming. In the classic “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” the shampoo is real as Lisa Danz’ and Billy Sander’s prop designers working shower makes this number a highlight. As her love interest Emile, Chris Vettel brings a rich, operatic basso, but what makes him so affecting is the touch of anxious ardor he gives to the character, an earnest charm that shows us how important Nellie’s love is to him.
Photo’s by Stephen Woo, Natie Fong, and Kathy Kahn
The highlight of this cast is the cocky comic bravura of Edward Hightower as Luther Billis, a Seabee always out to make a little honey on the side. Hightower makes this show work and always brings it full throttle. He has outstanding comedic timing as the young, wise-guy and is a fun counterpart to the more serious Lieutenant Cable played by the likable Joshua Marx. Billis and the Seabees are rousing in the athem “Nothing Like A Dame” it was limited in dance, but dynamite in heart and passion featuring Hightower, Burton Thomas as the Professor, Todd Schlader, Jonhann Santos, Scott Taylor Cole, Kenji Constantini, Larry Hawelu, Gavin Kaneshiro, Max Klingman, Bryan Munar, Bobby Singer, Sebastian Romeo, Woodminster vet Randy Burke and Rio Martinez as Stewpot.
The earthiness of Jeffrie Givens as Bloody Mary, who represents a strong yet good hearted character that crosses the cultural divide. Givens is appealing in her memorable “Bali Ha’i” and the classic “Happy Talk” that she sings with the aspiring Sarah Pon as Liat her daughter. Mary does her best to match make the new Lt Cable; Marx and Pon are both compelling in the romantic number “Younger Than Springtime” The performance brings two featured actors upfront with a terrific performance.
This is also brought home in the song “You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” sung by Marx as Cable, who is wrestling with his own demons after he falls for the lovely Liat As Marx delivers the message of that instructive tune, crooning that you have to be carefully taught “Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate.” An important arch in the show’s book, and well staged by Schlader and his creative team.
The open air set still has that Mamma Mia feel from earlier in the summer, but the set design team: Maggie Lamb, Brandon MacLachlan and Chris Wettersten bring the ocean feel right to the front row of the audience. Emile’s ranch house has a homey feel and the exotic Bali Ha’i backdrop is well crafted, along with the Commander's office that features Greg Carlson, Grant Lowenstein, and Joel Schlader. Designer Alison Morris’ costumes fit the Navy bill, even the drag session with Hightower, and of course the Island look is colorful, and the hula skirts most likely dusted off from storage to look like new on the Woodminster stage.
Jon Gourdine’s lighting design is always first rate, as the summer meets fall, his design gets a bit more coverage as the sun sets soon after 8pm. He kept the Island light bright and the show within a show “The Thanksgiving Follies” that opens the second act that sharp local look. Sound designer Carole Davis keeps most of the large cast on mics yet some of the nursing staff were difficult to follow, but the leads all soared to edges of the Oakland hills. Dance captain Sarah Pon was highlighted in the second act opening of the impressive show within a show production number.
The "show stopper" is performed during the "Follies" on the naval base with Nellie and Billis in drag, including his belly dance during “Honey Bun” is a hoot, complete with grass skirt and coconut breasts. The two and half hour musical moves well and Daniel Thomas’ on stage 17 member orchestra fills the Oakland hills with Hammerstein’s wonderful score. The women in the cast (the nurses) are featured in “Follies” and “Wash” and include Kelty Morash as Dinah with Megan Bartlett, Lauren Bond, Julia Brunelli, Linnea Fox, Cai Freeman, Ji Yun Kim, Julia Ludwig, Brennah Kemmerly, and Gabrielle Meacham.
Marx proves his commanding voice in his second act solo and Vettel shines in his foolproof acting skills as he closes the second act with “The Nearly Was Mine”. Most of the good times and laughs are triggered by Hightower, whose Billis is in the tradition of Phil Silvers as the similarly named Sgt. Bilko. Selling grass skirts and seasick remedies, Hightower is a loose cannon ball that never misses its mark.
This production of SOUTH PACIFIC has a splendid blend of fine voices along with romance, humor, and important race and moral discussion of racial prejudice, and tolerance. Supported by fine work by the ensemble particularly in “The Thanksgiving Follies,” this SOUTH PACIFIC is a trip to a little bit of paradise. Even so, bring plenty of layers of warm clothes, even with the warm summer days of the East Bay, the Oakland hills get very cold at sunset. The 51st season of Woodminster Summer Musicals concludes with the family favorite Disney’s Beauty and the Beast opens September 1. In the mean time bring your own Hawaiian shirt and hula skirt and be ready for "Some Enchanted Evening".
WOODMINSTER SUMMER MUSICALS
PRESENTS ITS 52nd SEASON
Book and Music by Rodgers & Hammerstein
South Pacific based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific
Additional material by Joshua Logan
Directed by Joel Schlader, Musical Director Daniel Thomas ,
Choreographer Jane Mason
Must close through August 14th
Two and half hours with one intermission
Woodminster Amphitheater, 3300 Joaquin Miller Road, Oakland
Tickets: $26 to $59 with each child free with a paying adult
Information: www.woodminster.com or 510-531-9597
Photo’s by Stephen Woo, Natie Fong, and Kathy Kahn
Amanda Johnson, Chris Vettel, Juliet Newman, Aisla Villarreal, Rod Votaire, Jeffrie Givens, Sarah Pon, Edward Hightower, Rio Martinez, Burton Thomas, Joshua Marx, Greg Carlson, Grant Lowenstein, Todd Schlader, Johann Santos, Kelty Morash, Megan Bartlett, Lauren Bond, Julia Brunelli, Randy Burke, Scott Taylor Cole, Kenji Constantini, Linnea Fox, Cia Freeman, Larry Hawelu, Gavin Kaneshiro, Brennah Kemmerly, Ji Yun, Max Kligman, Grant Lowenstein, Julia Ludwig, Rio Martinez, Gabrielle Meacham, Bryan Munar, Sebastian Romeo , Johann Santos, Bobby Singer.
Directed by Joel Schlader, and his team Daniel Thomas, Jane Mason, Maggie Lamb, Brandon MacLachlan, Chris Wettersten, Jon Gourdine, Alison Morris, Lisa Danz, Billy Sander, Carole Davis and Harriet Schlader. Must close Aug 13th
Over the last 51 years, Producers Associates has presented 160 productions, entertaining about a million Woodminster Summer Musicals ticket holders. The shows have been performed by more than 5000 actors, over 20% of them members of Actors Equity Association, making the organization one of the Bay Area's most reliable employers of professional actors. The musicals have always been performed with live professional orchestras, which have included 23 different conductors and over 1800 members of Musicians Local #6. In addition, the organization has employed 26 professional set designers, 17 lighting designers, 25 costume designers, 6 sound technicians, 18 choreographers, 6 directors, and over 1,500 young backstage interns.
Woodminster Summer Musicals are performed under the stars at Woodminster Amphitheater, an open-air performance facility in Joaquin Miller Park high in the Oakland Hills. The park's spectacular views and serene woodsy environment made it the perfect setting for the amphitheater, cascades, reflecting pool, and paths that were originally built as a WPA project in 1939-40. For many East Bay families, it is a long-standing summer tradition to enjoy a picnic in the park and then see a musical at Woodminster. For more information about the 2017 season or the history of the organization, visit www.woodminster.com.