Democracy Dies in Darkness

Theater & Dance | Review

A beached ‘South Pacific’ — and what is Trump doing in ‘Sweeney Todd’?

September 9, 2018 at 8:53 PM

Jessica Lauren Ball (center) as Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” at the Olney Theatre Center. (Stan Barouh/Stan Barouh)

“South Pacific” is the kind of glorious musical you always hope will be special on stage, and so is the great “Sweeney Todd.” So prepare to feel let down by a “South Pacific” that’s rarely deep or lovely, and by a “Sweeney Todd” that seems to exist mainly to take a shot at Donald Trump.

The “South Pacific” at the Olney Theatre Center is more substantial than Rep Stage’s skinny “Sweeney,” which takes a stab at Stephen Sondheim’s bloody epic with a scant eight actors and three musicians. At the Olney, director Alan Muraoka’s “South Pacific” at least sensibly fills the stage and hires nine musicians for the score.

That’s not enough, of course, to render the oceanic swell of emotions in Richard Rodgers’s lush score. But on the plus side is William Michals as a sterling-voiced Emile de Becque, easily the best thing about the show as he wraps his clear, sharp-edged baritone around “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine.”

The Frenchman de Becque is more absorbing here than his Little Rock love interest, Nellie Forbush, though Jessica Lauren Ball deploys the same wholesome pep in the role that she showed as Maria in “The Sound of Music,” Cinderella in “Cinderella” and more. (Ball needs to vacation in something by Kander and Ebb.) What you don’t quite get, except when Ball wonderfully rises to the burlesque spirit of “Honey Bun,” is the latent grown-up verve that guides Nellie toward de Becque.

Worsening the gap between them: He’s dressed in sensible tropic-weight clothes while she looks like a kid in cherry polka dots.

Set designer Paige Hathaway gives the show a pretty bamboo frame, yet Muraoka doesn’t pick up the cues for enchantment in “Bali Ha’i” and “Younger Than Springtime.” Convincing ebullience is missing, too, in “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” though the Jerry Lewis aura of David Schlumpf as the scheming Luther Billis at least has zest.

As usual, the audience snaps to attention when reminded that “South Pacific” is fundamentally about racism, so you can file this with the Bedrock American Virtues shows arising lately on Washington stages, including this summer’s idealistic musicals “Dave” and “Camelot” and “Born Yesterday” upcoming at Ford’s.

Jade Antoinette Jones and V. Savoy McIlwain in “Sweeney Todd” at Rep Stage. (Katie Simmons-Barth/Katie Simmons-Barth)

That topical territory is where director Joseph W. Ritsch tries to torque the scathing “Sweeney,” and it flops. To be clear, the production, set in a run-down area of modern London, feels misbegotten from top to bottom, excepting only the vocal skills of V. Savoy McIlwain and Jade Jones as the demon barber Sweeney and the barbarous pie maker Mrs. Lovett, and Benjamin Lurye as he nails the sinister Beadle’s heavenly top notes. The overall sound is thin and the actors are repeatedly left standing with nothing to do. Ritsch, who also choreographed and designed the set, arranges characters with little sense of the logic of thrillers, despite having an ample stage to play with.

He takes obsessive care, though, to frame the lecherous, power-mad Judge Turpin as a Trump figure. As Turpin (a dour Nigel Reed in a Union Jack coat of red, white and blue) flagellates himself and lusts for the young woman he has practically raised, a blue political sign glows above saying, “Turpin: Make London Great Again.” Bad use of a masterpiece: It’s theater as a bumper sticker.

South Pacific, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. Directed by Alan Muraoka. Music director, Kristin Lee Rosenfeld; choreography, Darren Lee; costumes, Ivania Stack; lights, Max Doolittle; sound design, Ryan Hickey. About two hours and 40 minutes. Through Oct. 7 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Around $64-$84. 301-924-3400 or

Sweeney Todd, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch. Musical direction, Stacey Antoine; costumes, Sarah Cubbage; lights, Conor Mulligan; sound design, Mark Smedley. About two hours and 50 minutes. Through Sept. 23 at Rep Stage, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. $10-$40. 443-518-1500 or

Nelson Pressley has covered theater for The Washington Post since 1999. His first Post byline was in 1992. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" came out in 2014.

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