In his notes for Village Theatre's 26th Season opening production of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic "South Pacific", director/choreographer Steve Tomkins observes that the show, based on James Michener's 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is seldom mounted (the last time locally at the 5th Avenue Theatre in 1994), and in fact has never enjoyed a major Broadway revival. Despite a score containing some of the most well-known numbers in the American Musical Theatre canon, Tomkin's production essentially proves his own point: while musically rich, the book by Oscar Hammerstein III and Joshua Logan has a decidedly dated feel to it, and there's simply no escaping the fact that it wallows in outdated attitudes and stereotypes that, despite of the play's intended denouncement of intolerance and racism, today border on the offensive.
Although it's perhaps disingenuous to fault a 55 year-old musical for lacking essentials such as clear character development, emotional motivation and thematic consistency, clearly these represent the most glaring obstacles in presenting "South Pacific" to a contemporary audience. That a young, corn-fed Arkansas nurse (Taryn Darr) could so easily fall in love with a sophisticated, middle-aged French expatriate (Eric Polani Jensen) is not nearly so problematic as is her inexplicable reaction to learning he's fathered two children by a now deceased Polynesian wife (so much for her reveling in the exoticness of the locale!), and her equally unmotivated conversion to racial tolerance by the play's end. Furthermore, the secondary romance between the newly arrived Marine Lieutenant, Joe Cable (David Jon Wilson) and Bloody Mary's (Leilani Wollam) daughter Liat (Emjoy Gavino) is given even less of a logical premise; Romeo and Juliet at least get an entire play to justify their "love at first sight", but here the couple have essentially ten minutes and one number ("Younger Than Springtime") to accomplish the same feat. Of course, the romance (such as it is) is doomed, since post-war audiences were far less tolerant of such a relationship (for which reason Cable's scathing "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" - here presented in a disturbingly up-tempo rendition -- was almost dropped from the original production), and any plea for tolerance is diluted by the script's patronizing "manifest destiny" depiction of the civilizing influence of American Capitalism on the child-like natives.
Rather than confront these issues head-on, Tomkins and company instead strive for a rather straight-forward, almost "museum display" approach to the material, which while certainly understandable given its topicality, nevertheless has the effect of emphasizing both the play's inherent weaknesses, as well as the cast's inability to overcome them. Case in point: the issue of how to deal with the exaggerated, racial stereotyped Bloody Mary is essentially ignored, creating an "elephant in the room" dilemma that hangs like a dark cloud over the production. Also, little effort has been made to reconcile the performers' predominantly pop-vocal technical abilities to the considerably more challenging demands of the musical score. Finally, a myriad of small details are overlooked, resulting in a decidedly rough, unpolished feel: for instance, given the play's military setting, is it too much to expect that actors properly execute such basic moves as saluting superior officers and performing about-faces?
Despite all this, the cast gamely plows along, like a tank through a minefield, clearing enough of a path to provide a reasonably satisfying, if not particularly inspired experience for the audience. Fortunately, "South Pacific" is blessed with an incredibly melodic, absolutely memorable musical score, which for the most part is executed with workmanlike precision. As the "cockeyed optimist" Nellie, Darr brings an appealing innocence to her role, and while she lacks the comic goofiness of Mary Martin, she more than compensates with an innate intelligence and emotional openness that grants the character some real substance. Vocally, she lays claim to a middle ground between being able to handle the demands of the score, but at the same time exhibiting the pop-music technique that hinders some of her fellows. She also happens to be a dead-ringer (albeit much younger) for Glenn Close, who appeared in the 2001 TV movie adaptation.
Jensen, while not having quite the "dashingly handsome elderly leading man" look, still brings a dark, romantically passionate quality to the role of the lovelorn plantation owner Emile, his deep bass-baritone delivering a rich, operatic sound on "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" that occasionally renders the baneful, ubiquitous body-microphones unnecessary. Wilson, as the gung-ho Lieutenant Cable has the brooding matinee-idol features of say, Randolph Scott (with body by Nautilus), and manages well in the book scenes, but is clearly out of his element musically, lapsing into a breathy, adenoidal head-voice when executing the role's high-tenor belts. As the scurrilous entrepreneur Bloody Mary, Wollam happily overcomes the limitations of the role, especially in her generous, soaring renditions of "Bali Hai" and "Happy Talk".
The romantic plots of "South Pacific" may remain in the forefront, but the show wouldn't be complete without a strong ensemble depicting the nurses, sea-bees and naval officers who inhabit this island paradise. In this production we get a decidedly mixed bag. The strong chorus shines in group numbers such as "There Is Nothin' Like A Dame", "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair", and the rousing Act II Thanksgiving show opener. And while Tomkins slacks somewhat from his normally spectacular group choreography in these numbers, the cast still turns them into some of the best work in the production. On the other hand, Bob Borwick gives a rather bland performance in the comic role of the opportunistic huckster, Luther Billis, substituting an annoying rapid-fire delivery and perpetual hang-dog expression for the character's generally gleefully predatory personality. Village veteran John X. Deveney as his sidekick Stewpot effortlessly upstages him, packing more comic punch into a non-committal grunt, eyebrow waggle, or salacious leer than Borwick manages in his entire body.
While the performances may be decidedly mixed, the technical elements offer a spare, but consistently evocative physical production. Robert Dahlstrom's scenic design utilizes a wide cyclorama depicting the blue South Pacific as a backdrop for most of the action, with a variety of roll-on carts and scaffolds creating smooth transitions between Emile's expansive patio, the ramshackle apportions of Billis' "bath club", Quonset hut naval offices, and lush jungle exteriors. Lighting by Marcus Doshi embellishes the settings with a tropical pallet of oranges, purples and aquas, while Jeanette DeJong costumes add further accents of color, and their faithful rendering of period styles adds the right level of verisimilitude to the proceedings (although the ample use of ladies lingerie in the "Honey Bun" number makes one question how strict those nurses' "two-dress baggage allowance" really was).
If it seems that I'm being overly harsh in criticizing the apparent faults of this production, it's for the simple reason that the Village has earned a deserved reputation for mounting high-quality musicals that at their best rival anything seen from big budget national Broadway tours. Given that this is a rare opportunity to see such a neglected classic, it's a bit of a disappointment that this "South Pacific", while mildly enjoyable doesn't quite measure up with the best they've done or are capable of doing.
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