Wednesday, November 06, 2002

South Pacific (Playhouse Square Foundation)

'SOUTH PACIFIC' pleasing but lacks spontaneity at the Palace

When, on March 31, 1943 the curtain came up at New York’s St. James Theatre, and a lone male voice sang out the words to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” a new era in musical theatre was ushered in. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein took the art form from an escapist vehicle to a new level when they conceived 'OKLAHOMA.' Most musicals since then follow the Rogers and Hammerstein pattern of the well-made play which is a story line into which the music and the dancing are integrated, a story line that has a beginning, a middle and an end.

They also developed the concept of having the first act end with a problem that will be solved in the second act. The viewer must come back or the solution to the dilemma won’t be know.

The duo also used a writing technique that was uniquely their own. In each of their shows they had a key song that carried a philosophical social message that was the key to the show. In 'THE KING AND I' the decision that had to be made about breaking with the past and moving into modernity was presented in “It’s a Puzzlement.” In 'CAROUSEL' the question of faith and courage was brought forth in “Never Walk Alone.” In 'FLOWER DRUM SONG' the challenge of breaking from cultural traditions was highlighted in, “The Younger Generation.” In what some critics think is their best musical, the 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning 'SOUTH PACIFIC,' the powerful “You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” confronts the subject of racism.

In spite of the brilliance of the script one might wonder whether the touring production of 'SOUTH PACIFIC,' now at the Palace Theatre, focuses on the play or its superstar Robert Goulet. From his solo first entrance, which was met with prolonged applause, to the spotlights which were always a little brighter on Goulet than anyone else, the staging seems to center on him. He is well-suited in voice, age and stature to portray Emile de Becque, a role he made his own in a 1987 revival of the show that toured the US and Canada. Unfortunately, it appears that he has so comfortably fit into the role that he is on automatic pilot. This attitude seems to have been picked up by the cast as they go through the motions of the show.

The tale centers on an island in the South Pacific during World War II. Two love relationships are threatened because of prejudice. Nellie, a nurse from Arkansas, falls in love with the mature French planter, Emile. Nellie learns that he has been married to now deceased islander and has two children. She reacts negatively to his liaison with a dark-skinned native. Lt. Joe Cable denies himself the love of a Tonkinese girl, with whom he has fallen in love, out of the same prejudices that haunt Nellie.

The show’s wonderful musical score includes: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair,” and “Honey Bun.”

Amanda Watkins makes a pleasant Nellie. She is attractive, has a fine voice and a nice vitality. Her scenes with Goulet, however, lack the intimacy necessary to make their love seem believable. Brian Noonan, who has matinee idol looks, has a powerful singing voice. His renditions of “Younger than Springtime” and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” were show highlights. Armelia McQueen is delightful as Bloody Mary. David Warshofsky needed more abandonment in portraying Luther Billis. The men’s chorus was outstanding.

The orchestra’s musical sound was fine. The choreography lacked creativity. The settings worked well.

Capsule judgement: This production of 'SOUTH PACIFIC' is not bad. It is quite pleasant, but, it lacks that extra spark that transposes a show from good to great.