"SOUTH PACIFIC," Utah Shakespeare Festival, through Sept. 4, Randall L. Jones Theatre, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City (800-752-9849 or bard.org)
CEDAR CITY, Utah — Utah has no shortage of breathtaking mountain sunrises and sunsets, and joining the ranks in a kaleidoscope of color is the silhouette of Bali Ha'i in a backdrop on the set of the Utah Shakespeare Festival's production of "South Pacific," directed by Brad Carroll.
Thanks to lighting designer Kirk Bookman and scenic designer Jack Magaw, myriad hues shift and slide into one another throughout the production, providing a stunning visual dynamic that complements the performances of both the actors and the live orchestra as they adeptly bring to life the score and lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein under the musical direction of conductor Michael Gribbin.
Based on several short stories from the Pulitzer-Prize winning book “Tales of the South Pacific,” the musical follows the young Ensign Nellie Forbush and the widowed, expatriate Frenchman Emile de Becque on an island in the South Pacific during World War II. The two find themselves falling in love despite differences in age and life experience, but things become complicated when Nellie learns of Emile's mixed-race children and must confront her prejudices — the show’s primary theme.
USF's production is an upbeat adventure featuring several standout performances. Playing the self-described “hick”-turned-nurse Nellie from Little Rock, Arkansas, is Allie Babich, who radiates optimism and smoothly delivers a warm Southern accent. She makes her character young and vulnerable but also strong and spirited, and she shines in her solos.
Michael Scott Harris as Emile has a singing voice that blends well with Babich's and rivals the beauty of the backdrop, though outside of the songs his character frequently comes across as more despondent than debonair, making his burgeoning relationship with Nellie feel a little too forced.
But most impressive among the actors is Christine Jugueta as Bloody Mary. Whether peddling grass skirts to soldiers, singing the haunting "Bali Ha'i" or arranging a match for her daughter Liat, played sweetly by Samantha Ma, Jugueta's Mary is vivacious and completely unreserved.
Other characters also feel the impact of the war and prejudice as they strive to do the right thing. Aaron Galligan-Stierle entertains as the fast-talking but full-of-heart Seabee Luther Billis, and Nigel Huckle as Lt. Joseph Cable gains momentum as the story progresses and his character finds more to care about, particularly coming to life each time he sings.
The ensemble numbers are fantastic and prove the talent of the cast extends far beyond the principals. "There is Nothin’ Like a Dame" and “I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” feature impressive choreography by Christine Kellogg and magnificent props by Benjamin Hohman — especially the operational shower. K.L. Alberts’ costumes are lovely and align with the setting and period, kicking it up a notch in creativity and intricacy during the fun-filled Thanksgiving Follies scene.
There were some rough spots in the show's opening performance, including a few microphone glitches and an uncomfortable moment when an actor missed one of his entrances.
Overall, USF’s “South Pacific” is an enchanting production full of warmth and beauty that is a treat to the eyes and ears as it offers an opportunity for introspection into one’s own attitudes and their origins.
Content advisory: Mild language, alcohol consumption and implied sexual content.