Ebb and flow in ‘South Pacific’
Music gives touring production its buoyancy
Wholesome and downright corny though it is, “South Pacific’’ is one of those rare musicals that manages to outlast changes in taste and to be largely unharmed by the passage of time. It has even found a way to thrive in our Age of Irony.
A keystone of what’s been called the golden age of musical theater, with a run of nearly 2,000 performances from 1949 to 1954, the show was revived at Lincoln Center Theater three years ago and promptly became a hit again, winning a fistful of Tony Awards in the process.
Now the national touring production, based on the 2008 revival and using the same cumbersome title, “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific,’’ is making the Boston Opera House its first stop, in an engagement that ends Sunday. So does it add up to an enchanted evening?
Not quite. More like a passably entertaining evening, with some captivating moments and an equal number of so-so moments. The cast’s timing is just a beat off in some scenes (possibly a reflection of the fact that the tour is just getting underway), a couple of performances verge on woodenness, and there’s no disguising the weakness of the second act (a longtime problem for “South Pacific’’ and plenty of other musicals), which feels both diffuse and abbreviated.
However, the songs by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) glow with their customary radiance. (Some audience members could be seen swaying in their seats at certain beloved numbers.) When the music stops, this “South Pacific’’ sags, but when it starts again, and the cast launches into familiar favorites like “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,’’ the show regains momentum.
Katie Reid brings a winning buoyancy to the crucial role of Ensign Nellie Forbush and to her renditions of “A Cockeyed Optimist,’’ “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,’’ and “A Wonderful Guy.’’ The wonderful guy in question is Emile de Becque (Marcelo Guzzo), a French plantation owner who lives on the island in the South Pacific where Nellie, a Navy nurse from Little Rock, Ark., is stationed during World War II. Nellie falls for Emile, then pulls back once she learns that he is the father of two children whose mother, now dead, was Polynesian.
Racial intolerance is also an issue in the other love affair that frames “South Pacific,’’ between Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Shane Donovan), an Ivy Leaguer who embarks on an impulsive romance with Liat (Hsin-Yu Liao), a young Tonkinese woman. Cable refuses to marry her, though, apparently worried about how his family and friends back in Philadelphia would react.
The character of Bloody Mary, a seller of grass skirts, remains a grating stereotype, but Cathy Foy-Mahi casts a memorable spell during “Bali Ha’i.’’ Christian Marriner offers comic relief as the tattooed Luther Billis, while Judae’a Brown and Cole Bullock shine as Emile’s children.
Even granting that Emile is supposed to project a certain old-world formality, there’s a stiffness to Guzzo’s performance. The same is true of Donovan. When they sing, though, both performers deliver the goods. Guzzo, an opera singer, performs “Some Enchanted Evening’’ and “This Nearly Was Mine’’ with majestic force, while Donovan turns “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’’ into a combination of bitter self-condemnation and a powerful indictment of the mindlessness of bigotry. At moments like that, the message of “South Pacific’’ feels not corny but necessary.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.