Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘South Pacific' a quest in Shawano

Box in the Wood Theatre Guild

SHAWANO, Wis. - Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘South Pacific’ a quest in Shawano

Box in the Wood Theatre Guild

SHAWANO, Wis.

Something doesn’t have to be great to be good. So it is with Box in the Wood Theatre Guild’s production of the “South Pacific.”

The show is among the legion of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s revered musicals. “South Pacific” also is a rather large horse – a Clydesdale – for a community theater troupe to be climbing aboard. But up Box in the Wood Theatre Guild gets – its step ladder teetering – to head off for a daunting ride that few troupes its size would take.

After all is said and sung and done, all the performers gather on stage in the Mielke Arts Center and sing the troupe’s theme song, and all becomes clear. The place is a nurturing friend. One of the song’s lines is, “You give breath to the portrait, and life to the words on the page.”

That spirit runs through this production as the story provides a glimpse of World War II action, romance and racial bias. “South Pacific” is lovely and meaty at the same time.

***

Running time: Three hours, including company theme song

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. July 15, 20, 21, 22; 2 p.m. July 16, 23

Info: shawanoarts.com

Creative: Music – Richard Rodgers; lyrics – Oscar Hammerstein II; book – Oscar Hammerstein II, Joshua Logan, based on James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific;” director – Sue Kluge; assistant director – Char Stuewer; vocal coach – Faith Fuller; backdrop design and painting – Cheryl Folkerts; set design and construction – Sue Kluge, Alex Konen, Dave Hackbarth, Dave Stuewer, Marie Kluge; sound and lights – Nat Madsen; costumes – Cheryl Folkerts, Denise Riley, choreography – Sue and Marie Kluge

Cast: Nellie Forbush – Faith Fuller; Emile de Becque – Michael Brunner; Bloody Mary – Mary Madsen; Lt. Joseph Cable – Hunter Krolow; Seabee Luther Billis – Dave Stuewer; Liat – Marie Kluge; Ngana – Grace Stuewer; Jerome – Peter Kluge; Bloody Mary’s Assistant – Karen Fuller; Stewpot – Alex Konen; Captain Brackett – Early Fuller; Commander William Harbison – Geoff Madsen; Professor – Alfonso Cruz; Sailor – Jordan Madsen; Radio Operator McCaffrey – Henry Stuewer; Suzette – Malaina Karpinski; Nurse Ensemble – Hannah Bergmann, Sara Bergmann, Josie Bray, Abrina Damaskie, Emma Etten, Bailey Harkey, Malaina Karpinski, Alana Krolow, Abby Owen; Lt. Buzz Adams – Alex Konen; Yeoman Herbert Quale – Henry Stuewer; Shore Patrol Officer – Jordan Madsen

***

Synopsis: On some enchanted evening, a self-exiled Frenchman has seen a stranger, an American military nurse who’s a cockeyed optimist. They are on an island in the Pacific occupied by a force of men with two things on their mind – defeating the Japanese and thinking of dames, of which there is nothing like. Nurse Nellie Forbush is swept up by the wonderful-guy Frenchman, and the two find brief perfection and imagine this is how it feels. The audience also is swept into the Seabee-nurse activity, including a goofy show that includes the camp rascal totally vamping it as a honey bun in drag. The wonderful guy reveals why he left France and that his wife is dead but not that he has two Polynesian children. Back home in Little Rock, Ark., the Nellie’s mother wouldn’t buy into that blending – and it seems Nellie has been carefully taught that, too. The exotic lure of the South Pacific is present in a siren song (“Bali Ha-I”) of a Tongan woman peddler, Bloody Mary. Her daughter is a lure for young Lt. Cable, with any happy talk between them being just fine with Bloody Mary. When happiness that nearly was theirs crashes, the Frenchman and Lt. Cable head off on a virtual suicide mission on a strategic island. Only one returns.

There’s a lot to work with in that story, and there are challenges aplenty for presentation. Box in the Wood Theatre Guild uses a custom painted backdrop of an island surrounded by jungle with Bali Hi’I in the distance. In the foreground, the stage has a sandy look, as of an island. Music is recorded, with organ featured.

Cast members concentrate on being true to their characters, even though what some are called on to do is not of their age range or vocal qualities. Two quick thoughts: One. As French planter Emile de Becque, Michael Brunner does not have a great voice, but he focuses on the meaning of what he is singing in an accent and the result comes off as good.  Two. The production is a bit of a vocal showcase for Faith Fuller, playing Nellie Forbush. She has a strong, colorful voice, so the show’s famous songs for her are tuneful.

Three other performances are notable. Mary Madsen gives the impression she has been waiting to dive into the character of Bloody Mary and her showstopper songs. Madsen dresses and makes up for the part to the nth degree, and she carefully envelops “Bali Hi’I” and “Happy Talk.” Dave Stuewer thoroughly gets into the role of shifty Luther Billis to the point of having a sailing ship “tattoo” on his belly and donning a cocoanut bra, a haystack blond wig and grass skirt for “Honey Bun.” Hunter Krolow finds the gist of Lt. Cable, notably in the pensive and sweet “Younger Than Springtime” while seated on the beach.

Director Sue Kluge helps thread things together as the company – with a remarkable number of family connections – sets out in its desire to tell a story that continues to draw interest. And then comes the theme song, which wonderfully caps the troupe’s musicals.

This and that:

+ Decorative touches in the theater include representations of palm trees on two walls. The trunks of the trees are lighted.

+ While dance is not a strength of the production, Marie Kluge adds atmosphere to “Happy Talk” with an impressionistic native dance.

+ Heard in the background throughout the show is the sound of waves, though as created by an electronic effect.

+ The make-up for native skin tones for the Polynesian characters looks convincing.

+ The size of the theater and the closeness of the audience mean no amplification is needed for the singers. Wireless headsets are used in most musical productions these days, so it is refreshing to in a way return to singing “au natural.” There is a realness to the singing.

***

Musical selections (recorded music)

Act I

Overture – Orchestra

“Dites-Moi” – Ngana and Jerome

“A Cockeyed Optimist” – Nellie

“Twin Soliloquies” – Nellie and Emile

“Some Enchanted Evening” – Emile

“Dites-Moi” (Reprise) – Ngana, Jerome and Emile

“Bloody Mary” – Sailors and Seabees

“There Is Nothing Like a Dame” – Billis, Sailors and Seabees

“Bali Ha’I” – Bloody Mary, Billis and Cable

“I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” – Nellie and Nurses

“Some Enchanted Evening” (Reprise) – Emile and Nellie

“I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” – Nellie and Nurses

“Bali Ha’I” (Reprise) - Marcella

“Younger Than Springtime” – Cable

“I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” (Reprise) – Nellie and Emile

“This Is How Love Feels” – Nellie and Emile

“I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” (Reprise) - Emile

Finale: Act I (“Some Enchanted Evening”) – Emile

Act II

Entr’acte – Orchestra

Dance for “The Thanksgiving Follies” – Nellie and Nurses

“Happy Talk” – Bloody Mary and Liat (dance)

“Honey Bun” – Nellie, Billis and Nurses

“You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” – Cable

“This Nearly Was Mine” – Emile

“Some Enchanted Evening” (Reprise) – Nellie

“Honey Bun” (Reprise) – All

Finale (“Dites-Moi”) – Nellie, Ngana, Jerome and Emile

***

AHEAD: “Spirit!” by Peg Kehret, Oct. 5-15.

THE VENUE: The Mielke Arts Center was dedicated as the Mielke Theatre on Feb. 9, 1976, in the 24-acre Mielke Park on Airport Road north of Shawano in the Town of Westcott. The building was renamed in 1994. The Shawano County Arts Council maintains and operates the center. The theater is of the “black box” type – unadorned (cinder block walls, painted black, and cement floor, painted gray) and adaptable to the needs of a specific production. For “South Pacific,” the audience is seated on floor level. The stage is laid out as a thrust type, with seating on three sides. The audience faces to the building’s west.

THE EAGLES: Right outside the entrance on the east side of the building – and up in a pine tree – is an aerie. Bald eagles keep the nest well-kempt. Not many theaters anyplace have a home of eagles outside their door in plain sight.

THE PEOPLE: The Mielke Family Foundation was established in 1963 by Dr. Edward F. Mielke and his wife, Beulah (Bee), together with sisters Ruth and Sarah Mielke. A native of Shawano, Dr. Mielke practiced medicine in Appleton for 60 years. Ruth Mielke presided over the library at Appleton West High School for 40 years. Sarah Mielke taught advanced mathematics at Shawano High School.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.


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