Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
January 11, 2013
In our decidedly not post-racial society, any play that deals with prejudice has a way of feeling relevant, even if it was written more than six decades ago. And though “South Pacific” has been criticized for its preachy, on-the-nose coverage of the subject, especially in the number, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” there’s something painfully timely in its lyric: “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/ Before you are 6, or 7 or 8/ To hate all the people your relatives hate.”
There are other thorny topics touched upon, however lightly: the boredom, risks, pranks and casualties of a wartime non-combat zone; the toll malaria took in the Asian theater during the Second World War; entrepreneurial islanders; native exotica; and of course, interfaith relationships.
Under the direction of Joshua Carr, the Welk Theatre gets some of it right, most notably the high-energy chorus numbers: “Bloody Mary,” “There is Nothin ’ Like a Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” Some of the solos feel strained vocally, but the excellent Randall Dodge, as the French planter Emile de Becque , is in particularly rich voice; his rendition of “This Nearly Was Mine” is heart-rending. Hannah M. James brings verve and vitality to the role of Nellie Forbush , the naïve, narrow-minded nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas. Brenda Oen nails the humor and comic timing of Bloody Mary, if not always the vocals. Overall, there’s a lack of emotional depth that keeps us at a distance, even in the face of loss and death.
The production has some problems in the pit, too. The four-person mini-orchestra, especially in percussion, often has a sluggish, measured, less-than-professional sound.
Back onstage, Ray Limon’s choreography is generally lackluster, and there are clichéd, cuddly moves that re-surface during every duet. The French pronunciations are wince-inducing, and the hand motions of “Happy Talk” are the oddest and least graceful I’ve seen.
Tropical foliage dominates the uncredited set, backed by a painted drop of that mystical, mythical volcanic isle, Bali Ha’i . Set changes are efficient, and the rented costumes look fine. In his comical drag performance in “Honey Bun,” Shaun Leslie Thomas, as the wheeler-dealer Billis , even manages to make the ship tattoo on his tummy roll with the waves, as in the original.
Speaking of originals, one of the highlights of opening night was the pre-show appearance of Mitzi Gaynor, who starred in the hugely popular 1958 film, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. At 81, she still looks good, and was quick-witted and audience-interactive, an excellent promotion for her formal concert appearance at the Welk in October.
This is a capable production of an American musical classic. “South Pacific” features a superb score, and reminds us how Rodgers and Hammerstein manage to remain musically and thematically timeless.
“South Pacific” runs through March 17 at the Welk Theatre in Escondido.
©2013 PAT LAUNER