The producers of the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific have obviously decided that the show needs an infusion of new blood and star power, and now, six months into the production, they have it. New lead performers, a visually stunning design, and some well-known showtunes make the musical currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati a pleasantly entertaining one.
South Pacific is a love story set against the backdrop of World War II. Stationed on an island not far from where Japanese fighters are located, Ensign Nellie Forbush meets French plantation owner Emile de Becque and a romance is kindled. In addition, Lt. Joe Cable has recently arrived to initiate a plan to monitor the activities of the Japanese on a nearby island. Cable is soon torn between his duty and his feelings for a young native girl he meets. Meanwhile, Nellie ponders a marriage proposal from the Frenchman, but soon must address her prejudices when she learns that Emile is widowed and has two young Polynesian children. Due to his knowledge of the islands, Emile is recruited to help Cable with the reconnaissance mission, and the unknown fate of the two men brings everyone, especially Nellie, great worry and anxiety.
For most of the first six months of the tour, Nellie and Emile were portrayed by Erin Dilly and Michael Nouri. However, starting with this tour stop, Amanda Watkins and the legendary Robert Goulet take over as the leads. The two had only two preview performances to settle into the roles before members of the press were invited. Even though he is twenty to thirty years older than the "middle-aged" Emile, Mr. Goulet displays a great deal of charm and warmth, and is quite effective in the role. He has lost very little in the singing department and his rich baritone is well suited to songs such as "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine." This is not his first time in the role, having toured with the show in the late 1980s, and Mr. Goulet seemed at ease with the part despite limited rehearsal time for this tour.
As Nellie, the largest role in the musical, Ms. Watkins is extremely endearing, funny, and appropriately "corny as Kansas." She possesses an expressive, character-filled singing voice and it is likewise difficult to imagine that she has just started in the role. Tony Award winner Gretha Boston, who only joined the cast a few weeks ago herself, is vocally impressive and delightfully humorous as Bloody Mary. Lewis Cleale shows off a strong and attractive singing voice as Lt. Cable, and David Warshofsky's Luther Billis provides additional comic relief.
The score for South Pacific is by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose musicals have impacted the world like those of no other writers. Classic songs such as the aforementioned "Some Enchanted Evening", "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair", and "Younger Than Springtime" make this score one of their best known. Rodgers' lush melodies and Hammerstein's efficient and descriptive lyrics are supported here by the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett.
The book for this show is much less successful. Credited to Hammerstein and original director Joshua Logan, the script (written in 1949) does succeed in creating an emotionally engaging story and must be recognized for its stand against prejudice well before it was "safe" to do so. However, there are glaring weaknesses as well. The opening scenes between Emile and Nellie lack impact due to insufficient back story. Also, when Emile states that a woman he hardly knows is the most important thing in his life, even more than his children, it seems in great contrast to his otherwise sympathetic character. In addition, there is little motivation to support the speed to which Lt. Cable establishes his relationship with Liat.
The direction by Scott Faris is generally praiseworthy, with the show possessing an appropriate pace and smooth transitions. Mr. Faris has maximized the humor within the script much to the benefit to the show. One quibble, however, is the choice to have the male ensemble play "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" directly to the audience rather than to each other. At no other point does this happen in the show, so the song's staging seems incongruous with the rest of the piece. Limited choreography by Gary Chryst is interesting and fun.
The scenic design by Derek McLane effectively transports the audience to the islands of the Pacific. Bright colors are used throughout, and Emile's Plantation Home is especially beautiful (with the exception of the distracting, large flowers surrounding the set). The lighting by Ken Billington and costumes provided by Gregg Barnes are capably rendered. Unfortunately, on press night, there were a number of problems with the sound.
South Pacific is a classic musical due to its wonderful score, which generally overcomes the major weaknesses in the show's book. Thanks to some effective new lead performers and an attractive design, the current national tour is a mostly satisfying production. South Pacific continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 31, 2002.