South Pacific is so filled with terrific music -- beautiful love songs like "Some Enchanted Evening," "This Nearly Was Mine" and the haunting "Bali Ha'i," lively comic songs like "A Cockeyed Optimist," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" -- that it's almost impossible not to enjoy a production of it, especially if the production features good voices. The Country Dinner Playhouse version does offer some fine singing, but it also has serious flaws.
Until Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein came along, musical comedies didn't have much of a plot. The stories were simply devices on which to hang songs and dances. But Carousel, Oklahoma! and South Pacific changed the form. In these shows, the songs arose from the action, and serious elements were intertwined with the usual lighthearted numbers. South Pacific, written in 1949, attempts to deal with both racism and war.
It features two love stories occurring on a Polynesian island occupied by U.S. sailors. Only one of these affairs will have a happy ending. The first concerns the unlikely pairing of suave expatriate plantation owner Emile de Becque and bouncy American Navy nurse Nellie Forbush. De Becque fled his native country after killing a bully who was terrorizing his village (you sense some vague symbolic connection to the Nazis here, but it is never spelled out). For five years, until her death, he lived with a Polynesian woman, with whom he had two children. Can Forbush, who characterizes herself as "a little hick," adjust to his way of life? And can she overcome her own racist response to his previous love relationship?
Meanwhile, Joseph Cable, a young lieutenant, has fallen for a beautiful Tonkinese woman. It's a very '50s kind of romance -- pure and perfect because the woman, not understanding English, remains mute, demure and adoring throughout. Still, it's hard to be cynical when you listen to Cable serenading her with the glorious melody of "Younger Than Springtime."
The coupling of a white American with an exotic Asian hardly seems controversial now, let alone the coupling of a white American with someone who once loved an exotic Asian. But the writers' stand on interracial marriage and racism in general was courageous for its time, and Cable's angry, brokenhearted lament that "You've got to be taught/To hate and fear" still has power.
The war scenes aren't particularly convincing, but the horny, capering sailors do have their comic moments.
If South Pacific is to succeed these days, the focus can't be on plot; it should be on the lushness and sensuality of the piece, and the sailors' reaction to the unfamiliar culture and environment they're in. Obviously, the music has to soar. But -- and I'm not sure exactly why -- at the Playhouse, it doesn't. The accompaniment feels plodding, and though every now and then someone sings a phrase that's heart-meltingly sweet, the clarity of the sound is never sustained for the entire length of a song. Perhaps the sound system is off. Perhaps the singers haven't rehearsed enough.
As for the visual elements, there's been far too little attention paid to detail. The props and scenery are uninspired, the costumes wrinkled and ill-fitting, the choreography flat-footed. All of the performances are serviceable, but none are moving. Thaddeus Valdez's de Becque is a little stiff; Beth Beyer's perky Forbush has some charming moments, particularly during "Honey Bun." Neither actor seems to have given much thought to their character's inner life, and it's hard to believe these two people love each other.
All evening long, I kept remembering director Bill McHale's terrific Fiddler on the Roof last year, and wondering what happened.
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