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Regional Reviews: San Diego

South Pacific
San Diego Musical Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Also see David's review of How the Other Half Loves

Robert J. Townsend and Carolyn Agan
Photo by Ken Jacques
Rodgers & Hammerstein continue to be considered one of the greatest and most influential musical theatre duos. While their shows are still produced and celebrated around the world, there are differing opinions about how well they all age in today's environment. Carousel, in particular, has writers questioning whether modern audiences can still root for the redemption of a criminal, Billy Bigelow, who commits domestic violence. A Broadway classic that can, however, continue to have an impact is South Pacific. San Diego Musical Theatre's production of the hit, originally produced in 1949, doesn't underplay its core message about intolerance.

Adapted from the James A. Michener short story collection "Tales of the South Pacific," the narrative focuses on a couple and a U.S. Marine Lieutenant. Two years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Navy nurse, Nellie Forbush (Carolyn Agan), is dating French plantation owner Emile De Becque (Robert J. Townsend). They both care about each other, but Nellie starts to question their relationship when he confesses to having killed a man decades before. On another part of the same island, the driven Lt. Joseph Cable (Casey Johnson) plans on meeting Emile to help with a spy mission against the Japanese. Prior to their meeting, however, an irreverent Tonkinese vendor, Bloody Mary (Gigi Coddington), attempts to convince Cable to visit a mysterious island, Bali Ha'i. While both Nellie and Emile's love affair and Cable's journey to the island initially seem idyllic, prejudice raises its ugly head and eventually results in some major conflicts.

An interesting element in South Pacific is how songs are used in both acts. Act one features several big group numbers, here with joyful choreography from Randy Slovacek, such as "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair." In contrast, act two has very few ensemble numbers and is mostly made up of extended dialogue and a couple of songs that either feature solos or just a few performers. Music director/conductor Don LeMaster and his orchestra handle the shift between the acts subtly and bring just the right amount of energy to each song. The orchestra complements, without overpowering, the strong vocals from the cast.

Not only do the major performers in this staging at Horton Grand Theatre sing beautifully, they also find ways to make their characters feel real. Agan and Townsend's powerful voices are used well in songs such as "Twin Soliloquies," "Some Enchanted Evening," and "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy." Johnson and Coddington also give performances that grow in richness during the evening. Johnson helps make Cable far from a conventional American hero and Coddington finds the right balance of comic relief and seriousness in the role of Bloody Mary. Another person who becomes significant to major events is the comical sailor, Luther Billis (Agustine Welles). If there are a few times when Welles overplays a couple of jokes, he still manages to give a fun and caring portrayal of the scheming entrepreneur.

Director Kirsten Chandler brings a sense of scope to the scenes in South Pacific. Taking place almost completely outdoors, her staging at the intimate downtown theatre feels epically grand. Michelle Miles' lighting and Mike Buckley's set create a sense of tropical paradise in sequences that are set at Emile's home and Bali Ha'i. In addition, Janet Pitcher's costumes are distinct to the many types of people in the tale, and Kevin Anthenill's audio features sounds of airplanes and radio communications, fitting in with the World War II setting.

Hammerstein and Joshua Logan's book strongly advocates against bigotry and cruelty. That comes across the most in two scenes where Emile talks about his reasoning for committing murder and a tense conversation he has with Navy and Marine officers. Emile's morals and convictions are relevant for anyone with a conscience. Even with the positive messages, the casual use of the term "Jap," an accepted epithet during the war years, might shock some of today's theatregoers.

Powerfully directed and full of wonderful singing, Chandler's rendition packs an emotional punch. She is giving San Diegans the opportunity to find out why South Pacific continues to be one of Rodgers & Hammerstein's most successful accomplishments.

San Diego Musical Theatre presents South Pacific through May 27, 2018, at Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave., San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays at 121 Broadway, San Diego. Tickets start at $30.00 and be purchased online at or by phone at 1-858-560-5740