Posted: Saturday, October 8, 2016 2:15 pm

James Michener’s 1948 debut novel, “Tales of the South Pacific,” won post-war America’s attention (and a Pulitzer Prize) with its 19 interconnected stories about men and women living their lives during the war with Japan. Inspired by Michener’s own observations in 1944 of Navy life on the small island of Espiritu Santu, the book includes the two story lines that Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan fashioned into one of our most important musicals, a literary work of art made great by the everlasting wonder that is Richard Rodger’s musical.

Opera Roanoke’s decision to mount a production of “South Pacific” follows the now well-established trend in opera of producing classic American musicals, effectively injecting a season with the laughter-and-tears cocktail that is Broadway’s hallmark. In this operning production of the company’s 41st season, JJ Hudson’s direction —    supported by spot-on realizations from Jimmy Ray Ward (set design), Tláloc López-Watermann (lighting design) and Jennifer Ruhland (costume direction) —  captures the striking emotional shifts that made Rodgers and Hammerstein’s show such a groundbreaker in 1949.

From the show’s inception, the creators sought to combine Broadway pizzazz and brooding romanticism. The central lovers, nurse Nellie Forbush and plantation owner Emile de Becque, embody this juxtaposition, memorably captured in the original production by Broadway superstar Mary Martin and operatic heartthrob Ezio Pinza. In casting soprano Ariana Wyatt and baritone Corey Crider, Opera Roanoke leaps across the show’s first hurdle, finding singers who can anchor its theatrical mix of musical comedy and romantic opera. Wyatt shines throughout as she embraces the vaudeville with gusto, and Crider gives the evening its requisite sweep of operatic passion.

Running parallel to this love story is another: the story of an American blue blood, Lt. Joseph Cable (acted poignantly and sung beautifully by Eric Hanson), who falls for an island girl named Liat (played perfectly by Malia Diaz). This story lives at the heart of Michener’s cautionary tale of interracial love framed by theater of war operations. Just as the book pushed its readers to confront bigotry and racism, so does the musical play. This ill-fated romance is brought about directly and indirectly by another stylistic pairing in the show’s book, the outrageously irreverent sailor Luther Billis — a tour de force performance by Adam McAllister — and the young girl’s mother, Bloody Mary, performed with exquisite understanding and deft craft by Helena Brown.

The plantation household, performed by Kylan Socha (Ngana), Beckett Socha (Jerome) and Nathan Nguyen (Henry) was utterly convincing, as was the trio of actors covering the military leads, Ed Sala (Capt. George Brackett), Bill Joppich (Cmdr. William Harbison) and Richard Cranwell (Lt. Buzz Adams). The dancers from Southwest Virginia Ballet (choreographed by its artistic director Pedro Szalay), members of the Opera Roanoke Chorus (under chorus master Aurelien Eulert) and the Opera Roanoke Apprentices (once again bringing vibrancy to these productions), all had great fun with the entertaining ensembles of sailors, islanders, nurses and marines.

From start to finish, Opera Roanoke’s artistic director Scott Williamson and members of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra moved effortlessly between the jazzy 1940s inflections and lushly cinematic sonorities of Rodgers’ unforgettable score. Everywhere, hands could be seen wiping at tears as the show reached its emotional peak, when the leitmotif of “Some Enchanted Evening” underscores the bloom of true love in an inclusive family.



Oct. 10, 2016, 11:23 A.M.: Ezio Pinza starred in the original Broadway production of “South Pacific.” The wrong actor was named in a previous version of this review; the review has been updated.