BWW Reviews: SOUTH PACIFIC at Utah Shakespeare Festival
With its glorious, unabashedly romantic score, it's easy to forget that Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan had more in mind than two pairs of opposites-attracts couples when they wrote "South Pacific."
Of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, "South Pacific" is the duo's most topical work. The topic was controversial when the musical premiered on Broadway in 1949, just four years after World War II had ended. Beyond the lush romance, the theme is racial prejudice, and the authors brought a groundbreaking liberalism to this premise.
Ensign Nellie Forbush, a naïve American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island falls head-over-heels in love with Emile de Becque, a middle-aged French plantation owner, but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. In the secondary romance, Lt. Joseph Cable can't bring himself to marry the Polynesian Liat, knowing their relationship would never be accepted back home in the United States.
The production of "South Pacific" during Utah Shakespeare Festival's 54th season is very reverential of the romance in the musical, but director Brad Carroll has diminished the musical's intent as an attack against racial intolerance and segregation. And there are some lackluster lead performances that also weaken the show's strength.
As one example, in more transcendent stagings there are Seabees and nurses of mixed race ancestry, as there are in this production. But they are directed to be separated from the white ensemble members, who also treat these different-colored players differently than their white colleagues. Here, they are all pals.
Also, the showpiece song that illustrates Cable's inability to fully accept Liat as his lover, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," is not sung with the accustomed fervor by Nigel Huckle.
It's also apparent that the director chose sterling men's voices over acting abilities with the casting of the Emile role in Michael Scott Harris, who struggles to project chemistry with Allie Babich as Nellie. (It also doesn't help the audience appeal when a frustrated Harris misses an entrance during the show's first staging, with many reviewers in the audience, he delays the scene and loudly exclaims three profanities off-stage that are broadcast through his open mic.) The actor playing Emile must command the role, most especially during "This Nearly Was Mine." But Harris is more focused on his French accent and making sure each note is correctly placed. He is overly conscientious and cautious to project the necessary passion.
The modest success of this "South Pacific" is due to the exceptional Babich as the perky and endearing Nellie. She has a bright, effortless soprano voice and exudes confidence with a rich texture in her acting. "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" is a delight, along with "A Cockeyed Opimist."