Boston’s South Pacific A Bit Lost At Sea

The last time I saw a stage production of South Pacific I was in it.  That’s right at the tender age of 17 I was spraying my sideburns silver to play Capt. George Brackett (mercifully a non-singing role).  In fact for the vast majority of folks I’ll bet their first experience with this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic (outside the movie version) was either a high school or community theatre production.  So when a full blown, Broadway quality edition rolls into town you’ve gotta ask yourself a question, “Is this production going to open my eyes to the legend?”  “Will seeing an age appropriate cast playing the roles of Nellie, Emile, Cable and Bloody Mary clue me in to the nuances I may have missed in more untrained hands?”  Simply put, “Is it worth it?”

Unfortunately with this production the answer is frustratingly murky.  It’s perfectly adequate.  The cast looks right, they sing great, and the production values are top notch … plus the orchestra gives the songs a lushness that you’ll rarely find outside a professional theatre.  So why is it all just so … ordinary?

The pedigree for this South Pacific is the 2008 Lincoln Center show that went on to win a Tony Award for best revival.  In fact, it was hailed as a revelation.  This isn’t that show.  In fact for a story that takes place in the super heated, super exotic setting of the South Pacific during World War II, there’s a passion gap that’s hard to fathom.

Let’s start with Katie Reid as Nellie … corny as Kansas in August Nellie … Arkansas hick Nellie … crazy in love Nellie.  You’d think her energy would light up the room.  Instead we get slow burn Nellie … cautious Nellie … what the heck am I doing here Nellie.  She nails every note in “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “A Wonderful Guy” but it’s the melody that’s selling the song, not her character.

For all you plot summary fans, Navy nurse Nellie Forbush gets swept off her feet by mysterious plantation owner Emile de Becque in a sort of May-Dec… make that October, romance.  Marcelo Guzzo brings the full monty operatic baritone that’s become the template for the role.  He does a stirring “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine.”  He’s all big gestures and soulful eyes, but is he really that besotted with Nellie?  And if he is, why?

Even the usually welcome hijinks of the Navy Seabees feels tired.  For one thing, I’ve never seen a pastier bunch of dudes who’ve been stuck on a tropical island for months.  Was sun block even invented back then?  Christian Marriner does a decent job playing the scheming but lovable Luther Billis, but none of it gets much deeper than a McHale’s Navy episode.  “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame” is a built in crowd pleaser, so sell it boys.  Sailor caps and fake tattoos aren’t going to cut it unless we believe how desperately errr .. lonely … you are.

One thing the show does a convincing job of is conveying the complexity of racism and prejudice.  Marine hotshot Lt. Joseph Cable, played by Abington’s own Shane Donovan, falls in love with an island girl.  Nellie finds out that Emile has two racially mixed children from his first marriage, and the chains of closed-mindedness start dragging them down.  In fact Donovan sings “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” as three African American Seabees, segregated from their white comrades, look on.  It’s a powerful moment, and the best in the show.

Then, there’s Bloody Mary.  She’s the native ying to Luther Billis’ yang.  You can’t take your eyes off of Cathy Foy-Mahi as she stalks the stage.  Her dreamy version of “Bali Ha’i” is like an exotic cocktail that leaves you weak in the knees.  But the whole bit about her setting up her daughter with Cable is just borderline creepy.  A romance that’s meant to be poignant comes off as superficial and that blunts its impact.

South Pacific is only at The Opera House through October 2nd, so you don’t have much time to make up your mind up on whether to go.  If you do, you will see a solid production, but will it be the best version of S.P. you’ll ever see?  I hope not.






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