South Pacific, that toe-tappin’, finger-snappin’, heart-string-strummin’ indictment of racial prejudice, is the most progressive musical of its time. Which was 1949, five years before Brown v. Board of Education, which almost necessarily means that by contemporary standards, it’s more than a little dicey.
The epithets heard in the show are not as harsh as the ones used by U.S. Navy Nurse Nellie Forbush in James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short-story collection Tales of the South Pacific, from which the musical was freely adapted, but the U.S. Navy officers stationed on an island in what is now the Republic of Vanuatu during World War II still refer to their enemy as “the Japs.” That’s less—ugh—problematic than the show’s “romantic” pairing of all-American Lt. Joe Cable, who hails from a high society Philadelphia family, and Liat, a “Younger than Springtime” woman—a “girl,” in modern parlance—who is unceremoniously offered up to Joe by her Tonkinese ex-pat mother, Bloody Mary, who learned all her English from profane American sailors and soldiers. (Supposedly Bloody Mary was inspired by a real woman Michener encountered during his own naval service in the region, which doesn’t make the character seem any less like a stock comic type now, despite an earnest performance from Cheryl J. Campo.) Joe loves this kid—or loves having sex with her anyway; it’s tough to know if they commune on any other level since poor Liat doesn’t get so much as a line—but he knows his snooty Main Line family would never accept her as his spouse. Woe is Joe!
That’s the musical’s secondary romance, of course. The lion’s share of its bangers—“Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” the songs you may know whether or not you even know that you know them—all come from its central coupling, of Nellie and the French silver-fox widower Emile de Becque. Their romance hums along swimmingly until Nellie discovers her beau is the father of two adorable mixed-race children, a stumbling block for this Arkansas girl. Emile, a civilian who still has his two children and a thriving plantation to lose after Nellie spurns him, nevertheless volunteers for a risky reconnaissance mission to help the U.S. Pacific Fleet get the upper hand over the, er, Japanese forces.
Every work of art must be judged in the context of its time, of course. Director Alan Muraoka—an American of Japanese descent, and a longtime Sesame Street cast member—doesn’t go out of his way to reframe the material, offering a straight-down-the-middle South Pacific that sounds fuller and more transporting than it looks. If enlisting a nine-piece orchestra to perform the score meant less money for the sets and costumes, well, that’s a sensible allocation of funds.
The show cruises by on the strength of its well-chosen leads: Barrel-chested and lushly bewigged, William Michals fairly rattles the seats with his tectonic baritone as Emile, and Jessica Lauren Ball is so disarming as the wholesome Nellie that the character’s revelation of her latent bigotry lands like a bomb, even if you know it’s coming.
Ball is so comfortable delivering full-throated, unironic versions of “Wash That Man” and “Honey Bun”—a song that stops the narrative cold, so it had better be good—you can see why she keeps getting cast in anachronistic stuff like The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, and Elmer Gantry. David Schlumpf affects a cartoonish accent as the bumbling but gold-hearted seabee Luther Billis, but he isn’t as assured in this antiquated comic style as Ball is, and none of his fellow sailors are very memorable, either.
It’s probably no longer kosher to say there’s nothing like a dame, but there may be nothing like this one.
To Oct. 7 at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $42–$84. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.