McHale's Navy

"But what I really want to do is direct!" reads a T-shirt popular among actors.

Even though performers always aspire to creative control, playwrights were actually the theater's first "directors." It was only when productions began to tour (and plays were thereby wrested from a writer's clutches) that actors began to direct their own work.

Some still do, even in famous Broadway musicals--at least locally. For despite the formidable challenges posed by South Pacific, Country Dinner Playhouse producer Bill McHale is currently starring in and directing his own production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite.

Based on the late James Michener's novel Tales of the South Pacific, the musical tells the story of a middle-aged French exile, Emile de Becque (McHale), and a young American nurse, Nellie Forbush (Jan Waterman), whose May-December romance is interrupted by a U.S. military mission to capture a strategic island. More waves threaten to swamp their relationship when Nellie initially can't overcome her aversion to Emile's two children by an Asian woman. Underscoring the play's subject of racial prejudice, a dashing American officer, Lieutenant Cable (Randy St. Pierre), falls for a fetching Tonkinese girl, Liat (Ronni Stark), only to balk at marrying her because of her race. Though he later has a change of heart, time and fate tragically interrupt their plans.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is a crowd-pleaser packed with such hummable and toe-tapping tunes as "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." It's also full of good-natured humor, featuring two clowns from either side of the racial divide. Bloody Mary (Jan Giese) is a wily native woman who cleverly hawks cheap trinkets to sailors and deftly orchestrates her daughter Liat's romantic escapades. Her American counterpart, Luther Billis (Paul Dwyer), is a fast-talking Seabee who wheels and deals his way through the war right under the noses of Navy brass.

McHale is in fine voice as the conflicted Frenchman who's asked to guide American soldiers through unfamiliar territory during their invasion but has difficulty doing so because of his choice to isolate himself from a world at war. His renditions of the show's popular ballads are well-conceived, heartfelt and occasionally moving. In particular, "This Nearly Was Mine," a stirring piece toward the end of the play, is delivered by McHale with a regal presence that reveals a man losing his grip on the private paradise he so desperately craves. It's a grand scene--representative of the best that the American musical form has to offer--and one that captures both the marvelous sounds of the composers' score and the emotional crisis faced by de Becque.

But as strong as McHale's singing is, it can't offset some ill-advised acting choices, including his mediocre attempt to reproduce a French accent. Also, in an apparent effort to inject several scenes with meaning, the veteran actor has chosen to speak a handful of de Becque's lines with a tremolo that's borrowed from the acting tradition of nineteenth-century melodrama. As both director and actor, he's ultimately responsible for such decisions, which undermine his efforts to create a believable character and render his portrayal more of a nightclub act than the theatrical performance he wishes it to be.

In fact, directorial failings can be found elsewhere in the production, indicating that McHale's performing duties distracted him in scenes other than his own. For instance, when Nellie decides to wash her hair of both its daily grime and her involvement with de Becque, she races to a corner of the theater, strips down to a garish green bathing suit and then drenches herself with water before singing her famous number. When de Becque unexpectedly enters, we're meant to see how mortified Nellie is by her predicament, but our hearts go out to the actress Waterman. A small amount of soap in her hair and a decent costume on her body would have still conveyed the character's embarrassment, which is largely a matter of how Nellie responds to de Becque and is not a function of clothing and effects. McHale's unfortunate directorial choice to completely soak her in water obliterates the performer's dignity and distracts our interest in the story.

There's also the matter of Giese and Dwyer, whose obtuse portrayals dilute much of the play's lighthearted humor. Dwyer's Noo Yawk dialect rings false from the first syllable, as does much of the rest of his two-dimensional performance. Giese resorts to belting out songs that require a lighter, more sophisticated touch. Her inappropriately down-and-dirty delivery doesn't fit with the whimsical score Rodgers and Hammerstein created for the character and succeeds only in reinforcing a stereotype that the show's creators were clearly trying to avoid.

The production does boast several fine performances, however. Stark is a charming Liat, capturing in one brief dance sequence an elegance and taste rarely found in the acting company. As her romantic partner, St. Pierre is credible, though a few musical notes are clearly out of his range. And Gary Montgomery as Captain Brackett and Marcus Waterman as Commander Harbison restore a much-needed sense of time and place to the production with their well-crafted (and well-directed) portrayals.

There are few musicals in the American theater as buoyant as South Pacific, which seems to surface every season only to be accorded a treatment that fails to capture its breadth and depth. McHale's choice of double duty in this production is sometimes heroic, but not even his singing efforts can keep the ship afloat. In this case, discretion might indeed have proved to be the better part of valor.

South Pacific, through January 11 at the Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Englewood, 799-1410.