Tuesday, November 01, 2005

South Pacific (Jewish Community Center)

‘South Pacific’ pleases opening night audience at JCC

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, America’s premiere traditional musical theatre writers, were social theorists and activists. Each of their shows, including ‘SOUTH PACIFIC,’ now being staged by the Jewish Community Center’s Arts and Culture Division, carries a message of societal problems and lectures on the need for change. This message is highlighted by one key song in the score of each of their shows. In the case of ‘SOUTH PACIFIC’ it is the poignant “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which explains that prejudice is not inborn but is passed from generation to generation.

The musical, based on James Michener’s ‘TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC,’ basically asks the question of whether a young military nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, can overcome her family taught prejudices and find happiness with a mature French planter she met “one enchanted evening” on a Pacific Island. When she finds out he was formerly married to an island native and fathered two children, she must decide whether “to wash that man right out of her hair.” On another level the tale examines another pair, American GI Joseph Cable and the Bali Ha’i born Liat, who are also the victims of prejudice. The love affairs are wrapped inside the reality of World War II when, in 1943 the United States Navy established bases in the Solomon Islands, in preparation for an invasion towards the Central Pacific. On one such island Michener created a fantasy about a French planter named Emile de Becque, whom the Navy wishes to employ as a scout to nearby Japanese held islands. He eventually agrees to assist and thus the story races to it denouement.

The Broadway version of ‘SOUTH PACIFIC’ opened in 1949 and closed in 1954 after 1925 performances. It won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Libretto and Original Score and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Three of the show’s original cast also won Tonys. Ezio Pinza as best actor, Mary Martin, best actress and Juanita Hall for best featured actress in a musical. In 1958 the play was made into a movie staring Rossano Brazzi, Mitzi Gaynor, John Kerr, Ray Walston and Juanita Hall.

The musical score, which many theatre experts believe contains the best score ever written for an American musical, includes such classics as, “A Cockeyed Optimist” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There is Nothin' Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’I,” “Younger Than Springtime,” and “This Nearly Was Mine.”

Musicals are the most complex of arts, combining acting, singing, dancing, musicianship, scenic and fabric design and construction. It is why so few musicals are truly outstanding, especially on the non-professional level. No matter how much we want to think that our friends and relatives are “better than Broadway,” the reality is that they usually are not.

Yes, every once in a while a local production soars. Yes, there are near wonders like the recent ‘URINETOWN’ at Beck Center, ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD’ at Cain Park, ‘CHORUS LINE’ at Carousel Dinner Theatre and JCC’s award winning ‘RAGTIME,’ but those are the exceptions. Most local musical productions are, “okay.” They are pleasant experiences, with performers and staff who try hard and give their all to please an audience. JCC’s ‘SOUTH PACIFIC’ falls into the latter category. Don’t go expecting to see another ‘RAGTIME.’ It isn’t. Does that mean it’s bad? No, it just doesn’t reach the level of that superb production.

Tom Fulton is excellent as Emile. He creates a clear physical and vocal character. His rendition of “This Nearly Was Mine” was wonderful. Cheryl Campo’s Blood Mary is generally on target. Colin Cook has a nice singing voice and has a grasp of Lt. Cable’s motivations. For some reason his version of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” seemed truncated. Since it is the key to the show’s meaning, one must question why that was done. The male singing chorus and the orchestra are superior.

The usually terrific Larry Nehring is much too controlled as the wheeling-dealing Billis. He doesn’t appear to be having fun...a vital element in making the character delightful. Joan Ellison (Nellie) has an excellent singing voice. Unfortunately she often says and sings words rather than creating meanings. It was difficult to accept her as a real person. There appeared to be little emotional connection between Nellie and Emile. John Lynch had trouble creating a realist character in the pivotal role of Captain Brackett.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: JCC’s ‘SOUTH PACIFIC’ is an acceptable but not an outstanding production. If judged by the opening night audience those who attend will enjoy themselves.