The setup: 1949's South Pacific, based on a few of the stories in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, is Rodgers & Hammerstein's third big show to completely change the face of the American musical (a genre that typically had made even less sense before). Instantly both a blockbuster hit and breaking controversial ground with its anti-racism theme -- which suggested white people might not just want to tolerate Asians (in this particular case), but also sex up, love, marry, reproduce with, and be proud of them as significant others and family members -- the show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and 10 Tonys, and the 1958 film version still holds a box-office record in the UK, where it ran for years. And if your parents or grandparents didn't have the soundtrack on vinyl, I'm very surprised.
"Bali Ha'i," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "Some Enchanted Evening," "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Happy Talk," "Younger Than Springtime," and "(I'm in Love with) A Wonderful Guy, " You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," "This Nearly Was Mine" -- there's not a clinker in the solo-heavy score, partially written around the talents of its original stars, powerhouse Mary Martin and opera-trained Ezio Pinza and Juanita Hall. Many of the original production concepts translate well to today's stage, including the smooth, continuous scene changes and minimal number of overpopulated, potentially weird-ass dance numbers.
The execution: In 1949, I might have given this play a Pulitzer myself -- it was fresh and interesting in a lot of ways. Sixty-five years later, the book feels weak and scattered, the secondary romantic plot races through its 10 minutes of stage time like a dose of salts, and it's thuddingly obvious where Hammerstein enlisted original director Joshua Logan to write the scenes about matters military. However, The Palms Theatre (the reborn Broadway Palm) has a competent cast exerting itself on Steve Gilliam's attractive, multifunctional set, and the unparalleled music sounds great -- both the vocal end and Stephen Schermitzler's tiny live band, which supports the singers admirably.
I had never seen South Pacific before, not even the film, so I'm pretending you haven't seen it either. There have been minor tweaks to the book over the years to make some of the dialogue less offensive. This production contains slurs I can't even find in either the newer or the older unauthorized online versions of the script. (Maybe they're from the film.)
I'm glad they're there. That's how ugly we were in 1942 (when the action is set), and we shouldn't forget. And it does my heart good to see children and teenagers in the audience utterly baffled by them.
Hands down, the best-executed number is "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," which features most of the young enlisted men at their unobserved manliest and bubbles with infectious fun and energy and innovative staging. That's in the second scene,though, really early on, and while some other moments are truly lovely, the ensemble never hits that peak again.
"I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" is supposed to be the feminine counterpart. Sadly, none of the ladies in the company appears to be able to actually dance except for Genesis Cuen (The Rocky Horror Show), and there is at least one too many anachronistic tankinis in a scene that features a couple of super-cute retro-style swimsuits. But the biggest problem is that Paige Mattox, as Ensign Nellie Forbush, is a stronger singer than actress. Not only does she have too much hair, the technical requirements of washing it on stage seem a crushing burden, and she just didn't convince me she even momentarily wanted Emile de Becque removed from it.
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Brian Bowman, as de Becque, is swoon-worthy in voice and action, lighthearted and worldly-wise by turns, and he contributes his share of chemistry to his scenes with Mattox, who simply does not bring Nellie all the way to life, though she falls short pleasantly enough. It's probably extra-challenging to play the sometimes bland heroic and ingenue roles in South Pacific when you're up against fascinating character parts Luther Billis and Bloody Mary, a couple of spunky opportunists with hearts of gold who are letter-perfect here, played by Palm veteran Sean Riley (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Andrews Brothers) and Debra Thaïs Evans, who delivers a stunning, hypnotic, yet subtly humorous "Bali Ha'i," while also nailing the comic ferocity of her calculating wiles that turn out to be all about a mother's love.
Bonus good things: The orchestra plays the overture, a foreign concept to many of today's theatergoers who typically find it weird and boring, and although we're finishing pie and coffee during it, there's also a nice projection of a few lines from the opening of Michener's book in typewriter font to give us something to do. And the beautiful, understated final tableau, which I don't want to spoil, remains unchanged. Bonus bizarreness: The Joe Cable/Nellie Forbush duet, "My Girl Back Home," which was cut from the stage version of South Pacific but appeared in the original film and the recent Broadway revival, is listed in the program but was not included on opening night. Could be any number of reasons. I've been there.
The verdict: All in all, while this production stumbles a little, it's as cohesive as South Pacific can be, entertaining, and unfailingly good-hearted. Opening night felt a little like watching a dutiful round of Whack-a-Mole, but there's a good chance the magic has heated up a bit since then. Whether you're new to the show or it's an old favorite, you're likely to enjoy. South Pacific continues through Saturday, April 12, at 5247 East Brown Road in Mesa. Admission is $22 to $54 and includes a full buffet; show-only tickets are also available. Call 480-924-6260 for tickets or click here.