Story: Based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Tales of the South Pacific, this musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, with the aid of Joshua Logan, is set on two islands in the South Pacific during World War II.
A young Marine, Lt. Joseph Cable, is sent to a Navy outpost to set up a dangerous espionage operation against the Japanese in an effort to weaken the enemy stronghold. While there, Cable finds himself falling in love with Liat, the daughter of a Tonkinese woman named Bloody Mary, a local wheeler-dealer whose people work for French plantation owners on the islands.
Simultaneously, an ensign nurse named Nellie Forbush becomes attracted to one of those French owners, Emile de Becque.
Both Cable and Forbush wrestle, though, with their own feelings about race. Cable is dubious about bringing Liat back to his tony territory in Philadelphia after the war, while Arkansan Nellie is tormented by the fact that de Becque has fathered dark-skinned children by a Polynesian woman who was his late wife.
Highlights: South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949 and ran for nearly 2,000 performances before closing in 1954 as the second-longest-running musical in Broadway history after Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! It was only the second musical to garner the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and picked up 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Libretto.
The Muny is mounting its 10th production of the venerable show with this 2013 edition, starting with a two-week run in 1955, but just the fourth edition since 1980. The newest version features some splendid voices and a very judicious use of The Muny’s LED screen by projection designer Nathan Scheuer, who utilizes it primarily as a scenic backdrop, most impressively a burnished red depiction of the volcanic island of Bali Ha’i.
Incidentally, on opening night the four new “big fans” at The Muny worked quite well and very quietly, effectively fending off the heat and humidity.
Other Info: Ben Davis, who appeared a few weeks ago as Sir Galahad in The Muny’s version of Spamalot, demonstrates a strong, smooth voice as well as offering a convincing portrayal of de Becque. His deep baritone brings justice to the famous ballad, Some Enchanted Evening, and he works smoothly with the show’s Nellie Forbush, Laura Michelle Kelly.
Kelly does well on her tunes, too, bringing a deft comic touch to the amusing tune, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, and spirited bravado to A Cockeyed Optimist. Her Nellie is honest about her own prejudices and not at all sure that she can overcome them.
Loretta Ables Sayre, who portrayed Bloody Mary in a recent Lincoln Center Theatre revival of South Pacific, demonstrates a surprisingly powerful voice on Bali Ha’i as she reprises the role here. She brings a wonderful comic sense to her presentation as well, sparring with Luther Billis and any other sailor who dares to challenge her.
The scene-chewing role of the entrepreneurial Billis is handled convincingly by Tally Sessions, who was Sir Bedevere in The Muny’s Spamalot. Josh Young is serious and noble and passionate as the earnest Joe Cable, getting to flex his vocal chords on the winsome ballad, Younger Than Springtime, as well as shed his shirt in a suggestive scene with Sumie Maeda as the fetching Liat.
Local performers doing fine work include James Anthony as the Navy chief, Capt. George Brackett; Michael James Reed as his second-in-command, Comdr. William Harbison; Zoe Vonder Haar as nurse Ellie Yaeger; and Desloge, Mo. native Greg Roderick as Lt. Buzz Adams, a pilot duped in one of Billis’ schemes.
Director Rob Ruggiero keeps this rendition of South Pacific smoothly paced, and of course benefits from Rodgers’ superior score and litany of memorable tunes. There’s some lively choreography on the number There Is Nothing Like a Dame, but often Ralph Perkins’ choreography seems rather pedestrian and uninspiring.
Brad Haak’s musical direction is a real plus for the production, as is the evocative set designed by Michael Schweikardt, which changes from de Becque’s lush plantation home to the captain’s war headquarters office to an island beach, all lit effectively by designer John Lasiter. Jason Krueger adds sound and Nancy Missimi designed a broad array of military and native costumes, with additional design work contributed by Tracy Christensen.
While not the most memorable production of South Pacific, it’s hard to go wrong with the impressive score contributed by Rodgers. And the book by Hammerstein and Logan blends comedy with serious commentary on racism that pre-dated the Civil Rights movement, as evidenced by the sobering number, You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught. That alone earns South Pacific a place in the Broadway sun.
Musical: South Pacific
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through July 14
Tickets: From $26; contact The Muny box office in person, 314-534-1111 or www.metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Larry Pry