San Diego Theater Review: SOUTH PACIFIC (San Diego Musical Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on May 14, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 Broadway hit South Pacific is so full of familiar, classic numbers that it almost feels like a Broadway review in itself − what a coup to have song after song that we recognize beyond its most familiar piece, Some Enchanted Evening. Overall, characters are likable and the plot holds us. We don’t even mind that there’s really no antagonist in the program because, in the South Pacific ocean in the early 1940s, the Japanese are all the enemy we need. All we need is to see the Allies thrive and, if possible, maybe get a little love along the way. South Pacific fits the bill sweetly.

Our heroine, young U.S. Navy Nurse and Arkansas native Nelly Forbush (Carolyn Agan) is a fish out of water, stationed on our unnamed island in the South Pacific. She immediately endears herself to us with her good-natured naivete and a sweet voice in “A Cockeyed Optimist,” which describes her well. Nelly is charmed by handsome Emile (Robert J. Townsend), a 44-year-old plantation owner who confesses to her early on that he came to the island fleeing France after killing a powerful scoundrel there. Sensing his good nature, she quickly forgives him this and allows her infatuation to grow.

The storyline is based upon several stories in James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, a 1948 Pulitzer prize winner consisting of nineteen short fictions inspired by anecdotes he gleaned from other soldiers. Rodgers and Hammerstein obtained the rights to create the musical from this, enrolling the help of writing collaborator Joshua Logan, who knew more about the military than Hammerstein.

Another tale from Michener’s book is also central to the musical: Lt. Joseph Cable (Casey Johnson) is stationed on the island and falls in love with Liat (Catrina Teruel), a Polynesian girl. He is soon pressured by her mother, the sharply nicknamed “Bloody Mary” (Gigi Coddington), to marry Liat or lose her forever.

The character of Luther Billis (Agustine Welles) helps Hammerstein and Logan weave together the disparate stories from Michener’s tome. Besides being a source of comic relief, the writers use Billis to tie in to other characters, keeping the musical together while we enjoy his craftiness (luring Lt. Cable to to sail where all the French girls are) as well as his sensitive side (a heartfelt crush on Nelly). Through Billis’s self-motivated choices, the other plots are propelled.

As entertaining as the book is, equally enjoyable is this production, one of SDMT’s best in a while. Welles blends joviality, timing, and a touch of angst in his pivotal role. Agan manages to keep us rooting for her, even when her own darker prejudices emerge, a product of her time and upbringing. Director Kristen Chandler and choreographer Randy Slovacek make the most of the SDMT’s  new smaller stage at the Horton Grand Theatre (a much better fit for SDMT than the enormous Spreckles). Though the dancing won’t stick in your mind the next day, it fits the spirit well. What you will leave remembering for days is the resonance of Mr. Townsend’s voice — the richness of his tone and the control of his instrument is simply masterful.

Where South Pacific dips in its excitement is the aging of the book itself, not SDMT’s production. Seventy years later, some songs and multiple reprises do feel a little long, despite committed performances. The “Thanksgiving Follies” was probably big entertainment in 1949 but not so much today.

Much is made of South Pacific being a reflection of its times, if not outright bold in supporting the notion of love across ethnicities, but sometimes the story isn’t strong enough for the intentions, even in retrospect. For instance, yes, it is admirable that Cable comes to analyze his own prejudices (“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”) as he leans toward not marrying Liat because she isn’t Caucasian. But a 2018 viewer is more caught up in the thought, “That’s not why you shouldn’t marry her! You shouldn’t marry her because you can’t speak the same language, you slept together literally a minute after you met, and you’ve known her under a week! Her looks aren’t the issue here!” Yes, it’s a musical … yes, it’s all told in two hours … but their relationship feels creepy from the get-go, especially with her tough-as-nails mother leading him right to her bed to be introduced to her. And perhaps it’s extra creepy, at least to this reviewer, that the good reasons he shouldn’t marry her might not have seemed creepy in 1949.

But picking apart the book, in the long run, serves no function in the decision of whether to catch this overall delightful show. In SDMT’s hands, South Pacific is lovely, endearing, richly-performed, and loaded with the kind of music that made us love Broadway then and now.

photos courtesy of SDMT

South Pacific
San Diego Musical Theatre
Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on May 27, 2018
for tickets, call 858.560.5740 or visit SDMT

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