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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Old songs, old terrors: Revisiting South Pacific

Posted by on Wed, Nov 4, 2009 at 3:55 PM

click to enlarge Say "hi" to Bali Ha'i. (Photo courtesy of Broadway Series South)
  • Say "hi" to Bali Ha'i. (Photo courtesy of Broadway Series South)

South Pacific

Memorial Auditorium, Progress Energy Center

Through Nov. 8, 831-6060

As audience members file into the theater to see this touring production of South Pacific, they see a huge screen hanging in front of the stage. It's covered with phrases that refer to the "Japs" and the human heads available as souvenirs. Striking a note of defiantly old-fashioned terror, this prop effectively sets the scene for audience, and reminds us that the original production, produced in 1949, came as America was still recovering from the trauma of World War II.

This South Pacific is the touring production of Bartlett Sher's acclaimed 2008 Broadway revival, with a new cast. Despite the unsettling opening tableau, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's musical, and the 1958 movie, have long been in the zone of comfort food. For those who need a refresher, however, we're in the middle of the Pacific Ocean while World War II rages offstage. On an island, U.S. Navy ensign Nellie Forbush, a sweet but unworldly girl from Arkansas, meets the much older plantation owner Emile de Becque. They fall in love, but Nellie freaks when boy introduces her to his mixed-race children.

As Emile, David Pittsinger strikes the right note as a man running from the past. His baritone voice fills the house, especially during the mournful song "This Nearly Was Mine." Carmen Cusack plays Nellie as a wide-eyed naïf whose enthusiasm belies some deep-seated prejudices, complete with an Arkansas accent that wouldn't be completely out of place in the Triangle.

As the show's second set of lovers, in the show's spy mission subplot, Anderson Davis imbues Lt. Joseph Cable with a sense of patriotic duty, while Sumie Maeda plays Liat with a touching vulnerability. Both couples show believable chemistry, with Pittsinger and Cusack's being deeper yet slightly hesitant, and Davis and Maeda's being sweetly innocent.

Elsewhere in the cast, Matthew Saldivar provides comic relief as Luther Billis, portraying him as a hapless would-be entrepreneur, and Gerry Becker plays Capt. George Brackett with blustering authority. Filling out the show is an able and non-obtrusive chorus.

With the peppy tunes and engaging dance numbers, this cast makes this journey to the South Pacific a pleasant one that does no harm to the canonical status of the show.

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