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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

South Pacific at Village Theatre

South Pacific
Leilani Wollam and
David Jon Wilson

A lot of talent, artistry and energy went into Village Theatre's 26th season opener production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Pulitzer prize-winning South Pacific. The good news is that the evergreen Rodgers and Hammerstein score is intact and very well sung. What's more, director Steve Tomkins' pacing and judicious deletion of several extraneous vocal reprises helps this version of the James Michener-based WWII musical play clock in about 20 minutes shorter than any version I have ever seen (and this show can go on and on). The bad news is that some uneven casting of pivotal roles renders the whole of this South Pacific less than the sum of its individual parts.

The book of South Pacific by Oscar Hammerstein II and (original Broadway and film director) Joshua Logan adroitly condenses and combines, primarily, two of Michener's original Tales of the South Pacific. "Our Heroine," the main plotline, is the story of Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, who falls hard for older, French planter Emile De Becque while battling her racial prejudice towards his two half Polynesian children. "Fo Dolla" is the tragic tale of Lt. Joe Cable and his doomed romance with island girl Liat, the daughter of the crafty old wheeler dealer Bloody Mary. Though the script is now very dated and bears the weight of its authors' well-intentioned liberal mindedness, the score is possibly Rodgers and Hammerstein's most hit laden. Its reputation is due in great part to the standout original Broadway cast and the cast album starring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza as Nellie and Emile.

Though the inglorious Technicolor hues of the overblown '50s film version are its most famous flaw, the casting of an over-earnest and vocally strident Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie always seemed to me a bigger debit. Rodgers, Hammerstein and Logan blew the chance to let Martin recreate her most celebrated role (besides Peter Pan), and then passed on Doris Day as well.

At Village, Taryn Darr is visually and vocally a more than qualified casting choice for knucklehead Nellie (and over-qualified in her scarce dancing moments). But Tomkins hasn't elicited a performance with the warmth, dramatic subtlety or sensitivity out of this talented young artist that would make us root for Nellie and Emile to find their way back together. When Darr is comic or jubilant, as in"Cockeyed Optimist," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" (a particularly fun moment), or "Honey Bun," all is well. However, when Eric Polani Jensen's solidly sung and age appropriate Emile and Darr are called to interact dramatically or musically ("Some Enchanted Evening," "Twin Soliloquies") there is no emotional payoff. Jensen has his best moments in his character's desolation after Nellie breaks things off, and he sings his final ballad, "This Nearly Was Mine," with real passion as well as musicianship.

David Jon Wilson is all one could want as Lt. Cable, capturing the character's outward swagger and core sensitivity throughout (especially in his plaintive rendition of "Younger Than Springtime"), and Emjoy Gavino has the gamin charm of Liat down pat. Leilani Wollam makes a picture perfect Bloody Mary and delivers solid renditions of "Bali Ha'i" and "Happy Talk." But, on opening night at least, the actress seemed to be holding back a little on fully abandoning herself with gusto to the character's trademark bluntness and ribald humor. The least successful principal performance and casting choice in this production however is Bob Borwick's strained and flat characterization of Seabee/conman Luther Billis. Borwick could take some pointers from the effortlessly scene-stealing stage presence of such vets as Hugh Hastings as the gruff Capt. Brackett, or John Deveney as Stewpot. Hands down, the biggest laughs in this show go to Garrett Michael Brown's hilariously pompous way with the usually negligible character of Commander Harbison. Recognizable television actor Rob Estes (Melrose Place) is woefully underused in the tiny role of Lt. Buzz Adams, but gives a good account of himself regardless. Bethanie Willis and her sibling Madison are cute yet never cloying as De Becque's children Ngana and Jerome.

As choreographer, Tomkins hits with his raffish "Nothing Like A Dame," and rowdy "Wash That Man" and "Honey Bun," but misses with an act two opening dance number by Nellie and company, which has the odd effect of making the heretofore believable male chorus members look as if they suddenly wandered into a routine from La Cage aux Folles. R.J. Tancioco's musical direction makes some of the big numbers sound oddly undernourished, and rushed tempos are another factor that damaged several dramatic songs, especially Cable's plea for racial tolerance, "Carefully Taught."

Robert A. Dahlstrom's beguiling set design is particularly notable for its Bali Ha'i show curtain which changes hues under Marcus Doshi's beautiful lighting, and is never, never overpoweringly garish (as in the Logan film), and Jeanette DeJong's costumes are wonderfully authentic and attractive. While there may be a great many less critical eyes who will undoubtedly find much more to admire about this South Pacific, for me, it remained a somewhat enchanted evening.

South Pacific runs through October 24, 2004 at 303 Front St. in Issaquah, WA, and October 29 - November 14, 2004 at Everett Performing Arts Center, Everett, WA. For further information, visit Village Theatre's website at www.villagetheatre.org.


Photo: Village Theatre



- David-Edward Hughes



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