Paper Mill Playhouse isn't fixing what ain't broke with its current production of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein World War II musical South Pacific. The theater company has resurrected Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber's Tony-winning scenic and costume designs, conjuring glorious memories of Bartlett Sher's near-perfect (Tony-winning) 2008 Lincoln Center revival. These not-so-distant memories, however, invoke inevitable comparisons — an unavoidable double-edged sword with which director Rob Ruggiero and his talented company must contend.
The largest shadows hover over Erin Mackey and Mike McGowan, who have the unfortunate task of following Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot's definitive performances as star-crossed lovers Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque. The pair is responsible for igniting the show's engine in the very first scene with sparks of chemistry between two people who already share a deep infatuation. Nellie, a Navy nurse and self-proclaimed Arkansas hick stationed in the South Pacific during World War II, finds herself in the palatial home of French plantation owner Emile, whom she recently met at an officers' club dance. Talks of forever have already begun, buttoned by one of musical theater's most romantic love ballads, "Some Enchanted Evening," which McGowan sings beautifully, though with a notably lighter quality than Szot's booming baritone.
Mackey demonstrates her vocal strengths in the first scene with the character-building "Cockeyed Optimist." Her voice stands up even in O'Hara's imposing silhouette as she showcases the effortless soprano that she winningly lent to the role of Johanna in the recent Lincoln Center concert production of Sweeney Todd. Mackey's Nellie is endearing and sincere from the production's opening moments. However, as she turns up the volume on her country-bumpkin persona, the character's immaturity begins to outweigh the charming naïveté that we understand the cultured de Becque to find so appealing. As McGowan croons his final soaring note, vowing to never let the woman beside him go, we feel a slight simmer of passion between the two, but as the production marches on, this initial simmer never quite reaches a full rolling boil.
Still, as an ensemble, the cast delivers on everything you want out of a production of South Pacific. The muscly company of lovelorn sailors dance deftly to Ralph Perkins' lively choreography in "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" while Tally Sessions entertains as the comic leader of the Seabees, Luther Billis (performed in the Lincoln Center production by the incomparable Danny Burstein). Ruggiero adeptly highlights the musical's pointedly political theme of racial bigotry as well, which rings out with a beautifully poignant clarity — and Doug Carpenter's soaring tenor is one of the most pleasant voices an audience could ask to deliver this hearty message. He plays Lt. Joseph Cable, a handsome marine sent to the South Pacific on a dangerous yet potentially fruitful mission. He falls in love with a Polynesian beauty named Liat (a poised Jessica Wu), though refuses to marry her. Similarly, Nellie resists marrying Emile as she wrestles with her own prejudices at the thought of the Frenchman, with his deceased Polynesian wife, having fathered two "colored" children (played at the reviewed performance by Bonale Fambrini and Gabby Gutierrez). Carpenter powerfully delivers the musical's sharply insightful "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," following his stunning rendition of the hopelessly romantic "Younger Than Springtime," which he performs to one of the production's largest ovations.
Yet, beyond vocal fireworks, Loretta Ables Sayre, who reprises her Tony-nominated performance as Bloody Mary, illuminates the potential for depth among this roster of museum characters that have the tendency to lie theatrically flat. The benefits of long-term marination are instantly apparent in her seamless depiction of the Tonkinese island native, whose ruthless desperation to marry off her daughter Liat to the American lieutenant radiates just as brilliantly as her foulmouthed comedic moments with the somersaulting Seabees. Sayre delivers a haunting interpretation of Bloody Mary's signature "Bali Ha'i," an eerie lullaby Bloody Mary uses to lure Cable to the mystical island of boar's-tooth ceremonies and beautiful women. As she sings the enticing melody, you find yourself simultaneously drawn into the myth of this magical land and pulled closer toward the heart of what Rodgers and Hammerstein set out to achieve.