Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Playhouse Square: Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific

The Lincoln Center Theater production of Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific; PlayhouseSquare Palace Theatre through February 13th.

The voyage into the South Pacific at PlayhouseSquare is less than smooth sailing technically, but otherwise is an enjoyable diversion with Cleveland's particularly wintry weather. PlayhouseSquare VP of Theatricals Gina Vernaci's program note remarks that "In the first five minutes I felt myself slopping into another world. It was as though the string section of the orchestra possessed a mystical power...."

As the orchestra struck up and played through the overture, from my seat immediately behind and a few hairs to the right of the conductor*, I was powerless against that mystical power. I don't think I've heard anything in the Palace Theater sound as wonderfully hypnotic -- certainly the highlight of the KeyBank Broadway Series thus far. That trance, however, was broken in the first scene and punctuated throughout the remainder of the show.

Before that though, late in the first act Captain Brackett (Gerry Becker) sends a package to a lady at "325 Euclid Avenue, Shaker Heights, Ohio" -- I'm sure many in the audience (and there was an audible reaction) may have thought that this was a insert-current-city-name-here type move, my initial reaction, until I remembered that it is, in fact, scripted that way. (And of course, Euclid Avenue doesn't run through Shaker Heights, 325 Euclid being not far from Public Square and only blocks away from the theater where this production is staged. (If you recall my Walking Tour post from the summer, Rodgers & Hammerstein had an affinity for Cleveland, with the first tour of South Pacific opening in the Hanna theater just around the corner)

In that first scene Henry (Christian Carter) and two children interact. The children were very obviously miced; Mr. Carter either was not miced or his mic was never turned on during his time on stage, and combined with a general lack of projection it was quite difficult--even from the front row--to hear, let alone understand, his dialogue. The following scene, the mics sat on the edge of feedback for far too long. The combined issues of mic cues being late or missed entirely, odd irregularities in sound level, wireless interference, and a particularly glaring incident of feedback -- just in case you hadn't noticed how generally lousy things were until that point -- persisted throughout, though were far fewer in the second act.** Had the issues with audio not been the pesky reminder of the real world, it is entirely likely that once pulled in I would have stayed in through the show.

Somehow, though, even with those challenges the orchestra sounded uniformly glorious throughout with a lovely balance; a welcome sound to ears that have been without orchestral music for an seemingly ungodly period of time. It is refreshing and worth noting that of the 26 musicians in the orchestra, again referring to Ms. Vernaci's program note, 22 of them are Clevelanders.

The songs of South Pacific have become hackneyed staples of orchestra pops programs. On one hand I was hesitant to see South Pacific because I don't truly love any of the pieces that have been excerpted and exploited; on the other hand I was curious to encounter them in their natural surroundings -- that is, in context. It was well worth the adventure. Though Some Enchanted Evening, I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, and There Is Nothing Like A Dame are still songs that I'm in no real hurry to hear again in context they make remarkable sense and were entirely enjoyable to hear from this talented cast.

Songs that I've not encountered out of context (A Cockeyed Optimist, Happy Talk being the most noticeable) and the innumerable music used to bridge scenes were great discoveries.

The cast presented believable, three-dimensional characters and the set was beautiful; neither gave a glimpse of that unfinished edge often lurking at the edge of the stage.

*- To be specific, Row D, Seat 313. Rows A, B, and C do not exist for this production.
**- It should also be noted that I overheard the conductor make reference to a new sound system for tomorrow, so many of these issues may be addressed, however it seems discourteous of PlayhouseSquare to not offer an explanation or apology to the patrons at tonight's performance.

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