Mark McDermott

Theater Review: South Pacific

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The company performs “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” Photo by Peter Coombs

by Bondo Wyszpolski

One of the challenges to any new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” is to instill a subtlety (of urgency, of desperation, of hope) into the more broadly drawn secondary characters, especially Bloody Mary (Keala Settle), Luther Billis (Matthew Saldivar), and Lt. Joseph Cable (Anderson Davis). Even the show’s two leads, Ensign Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack) and Emile de Becque (Rod Gilfry; David Pittsinger after Sunday) could be played as mere cut-outs if care isn’t taken.

Fortunately, the Lincoln Center production, which won seven Tony Awards in 2008, including one for Best Revival, has taken pains to shade in each character, which isn’t so easy with a story that moves along at a good clip, and with supporting actors who aren’t given enough stage time for their personalities to sink in.

“South Pacific,” based on a collection of stories by James Michener, is set in 1943 among a tropical archipelago that is being hotly contested by the Americans and the Japanese. Plantation owner De Becque, a renegade from France, meets Forbush from Little Rock, Ark., and love starts to blossom. But, naturally, there are problems, mostly the result of cultural differences and prejudices – which, on Nellie’s part, especially, have to be overcome. And that’s not so easy for her.

It’s interesting that Nellie can accept that, in his youth, Emile killed a man (in self-defense), but that she seems to draw the line at his having had offspring with a Polynesian wife, although, perhaps to make a point, the children here are pretty dark. Yes, she eventually warms to the youngsters, who are well-mannered and polite, but I wonder, would she have been able to do so if they’d been hoodlums or crack addicts?

The sets, by Michael Yeargan, easily transport the viewer, from the opening scene on the terrace of Emile De Becque’s home to the alluring nearby isle of Bali Ha’i. And it’s an impressive cast, too, although some – myself included – may find Rod Gilfry a bit stiff as an actor and slightly overpowering as a singer (but I say this as one who has thrilled to his performances with LA Opera since the early 1990s). Compare his somewhat wooden stage presence with that of the Gumby-like Billis or with Bloody Mary: Settle portrays the latter as beady-eyed in a wary, porcine kind of way, walking as if she has stumps instead of feet, but we also sense the maternal instinct in her wanting to find a reliable man for her daughter, Liat (Sumie Maeda).

The man she chooses, Lt. Cable, is somewhat smarmy when we first meet him. He cannot resist the innocent, trusting Liat, but the role is written in such a way that their affair is pure lust on his part, without any real tenderness. Although what emerges is the splendid song, “Younger Than Springtime,” this subplot has not aged particularly well (the musical was first staged in 1949). But at least director Bartlett Sher gives his actor an opportunity to show some affection, and remorse.

The music is overly lush, befitting the time and place, and of course the songs, from “Some Enchanted Evening” to “Bloody Mary” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” are part of musical theater history.

South Pacific is onstage through July 17 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tues. through Fri. at 8, Sat. at 1 and 8, and Sun. at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets, $20 to $120. Call (213) 972-4400 or go to Center TheatreGroup.org. ER

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