Taking a Trip to the South Pacific in Hickman

by Allison Mollenkamp

I didn’t really know what to expect from South Pacific at the STAGE Theater. I knew the plot of the show. If I’m honest, though, a 1940s take on race relations, centered on a much younger woman in love with an older man, didn’t particularly excite me.

And then Natalie Nuckolls opened her mouth.

Nuckolls plays Ensign Nellie Forbush, and from the first notes of “Cockeyed Optimist,” I trusted that the show was in her incredibly capable hands. Nuckolls has an undeniable charm, a smile that seems to hide a joke she won’t tell you. She slides through songs as if she’s coming up with each note on the spot, but somehow every note is still in exactly in the right place. (She also bears a vague resemblance to Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel.) And then when you think, “oh, someone who acts and sings this well, so much talent in one person” that’s the moment she starts to dance. Of course, Nuckolls has a lot of help from her castmates, who I’ll get to in a minute. But for the moment, I need to fangirl over the other help she had: Rodgers and Hammerstein.

There is a reason South Pacific is still being performed 70 years later. There’s hardly a note of this score that could be any better. Even though I’ve never seen the show, I found I knew almost every song, because almost every song is a core part of the musical theatre lexicon. I came out humming “Dites-Moi,” but you’ll have your choice of lovely songs to get stuck in your head. Need some romance? “Some Enchanted Evening” will leave you sighing and looking out at the sunset. Ready to be single again? Get your girlfriends together and dance to “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” which will have even the shyest tapping their toes. Want to watch a bunch of guys in sailors’ uniforms dance? “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” has guys dancing in sailors’ uniforms, complete with temp tattoos and little hats. Of course the story is wonderful, but from top to bottom, the music is superb.

On the story: the basic set-up is this. Emille de Becque runs a plantation on an island in the South Pacific during World War 2. Nellie Forbush meets him at a dance, and they fall in love. However, he has mixed race children, and she’s prejudiced. All this is set against a backdrop of GI’s and navy nurses, all searching for love or at least a little fun. There’s also an ongoing plotline about naval strategy and how Emille de Becque can help win the war for the Allies. If I’m honest, naval warfare was not what kept me interested in this musical. But hey, everybody has their own interests. If you like some good World War II boat talk, that part really heats up about two and a half hours in.

Back to the lovely cast. Michael J. Comer is incredibly solid as de Becque. He’s a great argument for having more lead roles for basses. Tenors have had a good run these past few years, but I think there’s room to let some booming-voiced men have fun with those low notes. He’s also versatile. His version of de Becque is hard to pin down. Is he a loving father singing with his adorable children? Is he a rich man in a tux throwing a lavish party to woo his lady love? Is he a man with a past who looks good in a bomber jacket? (He’s all three.)

Tyi Hakeem (as Bloody Mary) has an absolutely enchanting voice, and while she’s not given many meaty lines (because her character speaks limited English), there is so much emotion, so much strength in each one. If you rewrote this musical in 2019, you’d give Mary some scenes in French and see what this woman’s life is really like. She’s running a grass skirt empire, in the process making sure her community gets paid better than they were by French planters. Every single step of the way she’s hamstringed by American soldiers. But that’s a whole other show.

If I want to keep this review any kind of reasonable length, I can’t write a whole paragraph about everyone who was good in this musical. So here are some particular highlights. Emmy Jo Hernandez had about five lines as Liat, and they were all in French, but she still did a wonderful job. Her voice is strong, and she was selling every bit of those five lines on her face. Bret Olsen made Luther Billis charming and human. And it was nice to see his character support Nellie, even though there was no reward in it for him. Justin Eisenbeis seemed tortured as Lt. Joseph Cable, and when the audience has smiled and laughed through dance number after charming dance number, it’s Eisenbeis who gets to stop everyone in their tracks with “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” Colby Stolcpart and Danny Johnson are clearly skilled in their roles as military commanders, but also manage to bring a bit of humor to fairly serious roles. The ensemble has no weak links. They sing and dance up a storm, and throughout the show there are lovely moments of chatter in the background that might be in the script, but feel fresh and improvised every time. Lastly, I would be amiss if I did not mention Ivy Bullock-Pohlmann and Syan Kimbrough. These two young actors steal every scene they’re in, and even though it’s Kimbrough’s first show, I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot more from both kids.

I’m 930 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the designers and technicians of this show, which is a compliment to the cast rather than a slight on the sets and costumes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Robert Wamsley is some kind of design wizard. The set looks like it took about six months to build, which I know it didn’t because it hasn’t even been three months since Madagascar Jr. What’s so magical about this set is how natural it feels to change location within it. The tropical wallpaper feels appropriate to de Becque’s home, but somehow when we’re indoors we don’t notice the palm trees that help us feel right at home on the beach with the nurses.

The costumes are perfect. I could go on and on, but really, there isn’t a thread out of place. Torn up sailors’ outfits? Perfect. Old-timey swimsuits? Perfect. Evening gowns and tuxedos? Perfect and perfect. Everything in this show feels both vintage and brand new, brightly colored and a little worn by the sun and sand of the island. A particular mention for one scene in which Nellie goes from a wig to her real hair in what seemed to be about 30 seconds. And then a few pages later the wig is back, with nary a hair out of place.

I’ve now been going on for 1150 words, and I hope you’ve gotten the point: this is a good show. It’s worth the drive to Hickman. It’s worth the price of admission. Go support local theatre at its very best. And come out singing your new favorite song from this smash of a classic musical.

If you go: Remaining performances of South Pacific are September 13-15 and 19-22 at the STAGE Theatre (225 Locust Street, Hickman, NE). Thursday, Friday, and Saturday shows are at 7:30 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available at the box office and online.

Allison Mollenkamp is a reporter and producer for NET News. You may have seen her onstage at the Lincoln Community Playhouse or the STAGE Theater in Hickman. After a lifetime of moving around, she’s happy to find a home in the Lincoln theatre community. You can follow her on twitter @alliemollenkamp.

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