The Revival Of South Pacific Is Not Enchanting
Also see Richard's review of Greater Tuna
The current revival tour of South Pacific is not an enchanting evening. That said, the score is still lovely and the production of this old warhorse is adequate by the requiring standards of a Broadway musical. It’s been a long time since I saw Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza and Juanita Hall sing these engaging songs at the Majestic Theatre back in 1949. Since then, there have been many touring companies and regional productions of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. The last time we saw the production was at London's Prince of Wales Theatre with Gemma Craven in the Nellie Forbush role.
South Pacific is set on a Pacific island during World War II, and the plot follows Navy nurse Nellie Forbush’s love affair with a much older Emile de Becque and a parallel affair between Marine Lt. Cable and a local island girl, Liat. The plot does not hold up very well in this day and age with the first four songs (“Dites Moi”, “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Twin Soliloquies,” and “Some Enchanted Evening”) rushing by in the first fifteen minutes of the musical. It seems to be a Reader’s Digest version of the May-September romance of Navy nurse Nellie and de Becque. The lovely songs tumble over each other to establish this relationship. The disparate ages between these two is much more noticeable from the prior productions that I have seen.
South Pacific was one of the first modern musicals that had prejudice as its underlining theme - two parallel love stories are threatened by the dangers of prejudice and war. Nellie learns that Emile had been married and fathered two native children, so she turns her back on him. Lt. Joe Cable falls in love with a Tonkinese girl but he cannot conquer his prejudice to marry her.
Robert Goulet as Emile was having problems with his songs on opening night. He had great difficulty maintaining pitch on the high notes in his big number, “Some Enchanted Evening.” Rather than singing, he was braying the song. The song is meant for a booming operatic baritone like Pinza. Mr. Goulet does not have the range to sing the standard. His acting is very wooden and he walks through the part.
Amanda Watkins plays Nellie as a '40s screwball comedy actress like Betty Hutton. She is charming and has a nice Arkansas accent and she does put across “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m In Love with a Wonderful Guy.” However, she has problems with “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa my Hair” and “Honey Bun.” There is no life in those numbers, and it looks like they were just thrown in for good measure. Even the nurses' chorus could not salvage the “Wash” number. They look like fugitives from Guys and Dolls.
Tony winner Gretha Boston is stuck playing the political incorrect, tacky Bloody Mary. However, she reaches another dimension when she sings the dazzlingly hypnotic “Bali Ha’i.” Lewis Cleale makes a handsome Lt. Cable, and he has a truly beautiful voice for “Younger Than Springtime.” He also has great acting chops when bitterly sings “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” one of the early songs about prejudice. David Warshofsky as the Seabee con artist Luther Billis seems to have been cut down to a glorified walk-on. He speaks with a harsh New York accent that comes directly out of a World War II movie.
The male Seabee chorus is excellent even though they look like The Village People. Choreographer Gary Chryst has done a bang up dance scene with the guys cleverly turning push ups into a dance step in the rousing “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” The set is fairly simple with scrims and silhouettes to create a “Hollywood” look.
South Pacific runs through August 18 at the Golden Gate Theatre, and you can obtain tickets by calling 415-512-7770 or visiting www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot will be coming into the Golden Gate on October 8th.