South Pacific, now playing through March 17 at the Welk Resorts Theatre, is deservedly rated as one of the best and most lavish musicals of all time. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950, it served up exotic locales, appealing Middle American values, a lyrically romantic score, and wartime heroism at a time when U. S. jingoism was high. But, the Pulitzer probably was awarded because the show hit its audience between the eyes for its attitudes about the mixing of the races, foreshadowing the coming civil rights movement.
Despite its pedigree, though, New York revivals were few and not produced on Broadway (the New York City Opera did two of these revivals), probably because the show is difficult to produce in the manner intended. A lavish 2008 Broadway revival proved to be a major hit, however.
The Welk’s production is nowhere near lavish, but it proves to be solid enough to be enjoyed by the entire family.
Adapted from James Michener’s popular novel, Tales of the South Pacific, the musical is set on an island well away from the front lines of the U. S. campaign against Japan. Here, U. S. troops while away their time by bargaining with enterprising natives, planning holiday entertainments, and dreaming of romance on the off-limits island of Bali Hai. A nurse named Nellie Forbush (Hannah M. James) carries on a romance with a local planter named Emile DeBeque (Randall Dodge), unaware that DeBeque has a checkered past including two children by a Polynesian wife. Meanwhile, Lt. Joseph Cable (Benjamin Lopez) arrives from the front with a high-risk scheme to direct U. S. bombers toward Japanese warships from a perch on an island controlled by the enemy. Cable wants DeBeque to accompany him, as DeBeque knows this island well. While on base, however, Cable visits Bali Hai and strikes up a romance with a native woman (Joanna Tsang).
The score is nearly operatic in character, and in fact, DeBeque is often performed by an opera singer. Lyrical ballads such as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime” alternate with rousing chorus numbers like “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” and novelty numbers such as “Honey Bun.” Nellie sings of being as corny as Kansas in August and Cable sings the show’s message of racial tolerance in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Fortunately, Mr. Dodge carries the show with his lovely bass-baritone resonances, and Mr. Lopez proves to exhibit an appealing tenor range. Michael Prohaska stands out among the large supporting cast for making the base commander, Captain Brackett, at once stern but sympathetic. [php snippet=1]
Producer and Director Joshua Carr sticks to the tried and true in staging the show with rented sets and costumes. The result is a production that is at its best when displaying the fine qualities of the voices of its male leads. Ms. James’ performance varied in quality on opening night, however, and efforts to energize the proceedings by Brenda Oen and Shaun Leslie Thomas as the comic entrepreneurs Bloody Mary and Luther Billis tended to fall flat.
Probably the biggest miscue, though, came from Justin Gray’s musical direction, which tended to transform legato orchestral and vocal lines into choppy canters more appropriate for the comic numbers.
Audiences looking to be swept away by romantic exuberance or consumed by lush musical numbers won’t be satisfied with this production. But, audiences eager to experience a landmark musical will find this traditional production performed by a young cast to be mostly satisfying.