note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Seeing the national touring company production of “South Pacific” last week at the Opera House in Boston was anything but an enchanted evening. In fact, it was aggravating, The show appeared here Sept. 22-Oct. 2. Touted as “Better than ever- a revitalized ‘South Pacific’ transcends barriers to unify generations,” the hype further states, “You may have seen ‘South Pacific’ before, but you’ve never seen it like this.” That’s true- and I hope I never do again. This production has diluted this American musical treasure.
How much can you “improve” on Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan’s prize book, adapted from James A. Michener’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Tales from the South Pacific,” especially after it won several Tony Awards in 2008 at the Lincoln Center? This production is allegedly based on that masterpiece.
This beloved 1949 musical already has everything - a solid story that isn’t your typical boy-meets-girl tale. It’s set in the South Pacific islands during World War II and the escalation of Japan’s involvement, so there’s plenty of excitement.
Then, too, how can anyone not adore Rodgers and Hammerstein’s gorgeous, multi-award winning music and lyrics, which are classic American standards? It’s easy, when actors are miscast and lackluster, Sarna Lapine’s “recreated” direction misguided, and Trude Rittman’s choreography, sparse and non-energetic.
During the Great War era, bigotry, racism, and ignorance splotched a shameful smear on the American way. “You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate all the people your relatives hate,” sings Princeton graduate, Marine Lt. Joe Cable of Ardmore, Pa. (nicely portrayed by Abington native Shane Donavan). His words resonate with perky, sunshiny Navy nurse Nellie Forbush of Little Rock, Ark., who has fallen in love with a 44-year-old wealthy plantation widower, French expatriate, Emile de Becque. Her ardor cools when she meets Jerome (Cole Bullock) and Ngana, (Judae’a Brown), de Becque’s two mixed-race children. Nellie knows her romance would be unacceptable in Little Rock, but she has problems with it, too. She was born this way and can’t change, she says. Unfortunately, there’s no spark, no chemistry between Katie Reid as Nellie and Marcelo Guzzo as de Becque. Oftentimes, their romantic moments and duets are sung across a crowded room, to the audience, not to each other. Although Guzzo’s voice is powerful and operatic, Reid is as corny as Kansas in August.
Also disappointing is Cathy Foy-Mahi as Bloody Mary, the wheeling-dealing, colorful island character, who is supposed to provide comic relief but acts foreboding and gloomy here. Contrastingly, Hsin-Yu Liao as her beautiful young daughter Liat, is charming - the personification of younger than springtime, especially during her dance for Joe Cable. And lively numbers, such as “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” and “Honeybun” are primarily solos, underutilizing the ensemble.
The sets are dramatic, with bamboo scrims, maps, etc. as background, and Donald Holder’s lighting changes skies from tropical azure blue to misty, mystical pink and mauves, beckoning Cable to Bali Ha’i, as the horizon shadows its two volcanoes in the distance. But when the war escalates and the troops prepare to move out, those pastel skies turn a threatening smoky gray.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much happy talk about this production of “South Pacific”. I need somebody to “Dites-moi” why a cockeyed optimist like me couldn’t wait to leave. I walked out thinking, “This nearly was mine”.