Candlelight Provides an Enchanted Evening of “South Pacific “

SouthPacific-SMALLBussy Gower is the “Cockeyed Optimist” Nellie Forbush in Revival of World Famous Musical

Reviewed by Tom Jones
March 19, 2016

Bussy Gower is delightfully introduced as “A Cockeyed Optimist” early in the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse production of “South Pacific.” Gower portrays Nellie Forbush, a self-proclaimed hick from rural Arkansas. She is serving as an American nurse on a tiny Pacific Island during World War II, and is naively amazed with how different life can be from one part of the planet to another.

“A Cockeyed Optimist” is just one of the numerous song standards that emerged from the award-winning musical “South Pacific,” written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II nearly 70 years ago! The show premiered on Broadway in 1949 and was an immediate hit. Plot is based on “Tales of the South Pacific,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by James A. Michener. Michener’s stories are of soldiers, sailors, natives, and residents of South Pacific Islands – tales of love, heroism, and racism.

The musical introduced me to Broadway shows when I was barely a teenager. Some neighbors had a 45 RPM cast album of the show, before I had ever heard of a place called “Broadway.” I was infatuated by the songs, and ended up buying the album myself. “Younger Than Springtime,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “Bali Ha’i” became my songs. They still are, but I am willing to share them with others.

Director Patrick Sawyer has assembled a remarkable cast of vocalists for the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse production. First and foremost are Bussy Gower as Nellie and Markus Warren as Emile DeBeque, a French planter who moved to the islands after he killed a bully in France many years ago. They both have remarkable voices, and enhance the well-known melodies. The young “hick” from Little Rock, and the older French planter fall in love.

Annie Dwyer, is quite wonderful as the local islander, Bloody Mary. She is a foul-mouth native whose profanity-riddled English was learned from the wild sailors. She is heart-wrenching as she sings of “Bali Ha’i,” the off-limits island across the bay. Tony White, is great fun as the fast-talking Luther Billis, always available to offer some kind of “deal” to any takers. He and the Seabees remind us “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” James Francis plays Lt. Joseph Cable, who arrives on the island to take on a dangerous assignment. His “Younger than Springtime” is one of the show’s greatest highlights.

It is interesting how well the musical has withstood changes of time. Its message of racism is perhaps even more relevant now than ever. The beauty of the songs keeps the story moving towards the ideals of hope and happiness. Many of the show’s most-fun and best-known songs are in the First Act. The Second Act turns more serious with more plot and less melody.

The enormously attractive set was designed by Aaron Sheckler. Mark Derryberry is credited as sound designer. The clarity of the voices and music are excellent – probably the best I’ve heard at Candlelight. Excellent lighting is designed by Shannon Johnson, with orchestra conducted by Josh lively. The orchestra does have its challenge to keep pace with the quality of the vocalists. There were some difficulties with music for the performance I saw. Lively choreography is provided by Sky Cash. Vocal music director is Melissa Swift-Sawyer, with costumes designed by Judith Ernst.

The cast is large, with many excellent supporting players, including Kent Suug at Captain Brackett, Tess Victoria as Liat, and T.J. Mullin as Commander Harbison. The roles of Emile DeBeque’s Polynesian children are alternated between Brekken Wald and Annagrace O’Connor, or Kaden Dolph and Mika Fish. I saw Dolph and Fish who were both convincing and showed great self-confidence.

“South Pacific” is a beautiful show. It looks and vocally sounds terrific. How many shows have such time-honored classics as “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” Some Enchanted Evening,” “Happy Talk,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and the always positive – “Cockeyed Optimist!”

“South Pacific”
Where: Candlelight Dinner Playhouse
4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown
To: May 8, 2016
For Tickets: Box Office: 970/744-3747