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Ironic, isn’t it, that Molly Smith’s South Pacific hit the stage just as Trent Lott’s prejudices finally caught up to him? It was fun walking in, imagining how many sparks might be struck when a 53-year-old romance with a racial-tolerance theme—staged by the ambitious iconoclast who brought crusading lefty Paula Vogel to town as playwright-in-residence—opened in a city consumed by the question of whether a Republican could publicly pine for the days of segregation and still keep his Senate leadership post.
It was rather less fun walking out when it was done.
Not, I should hasten to say, because Smith’s production is in any way shabby, or because it reaches for and misses some too-clever modern resonance. Far from it: The show that unfolds (and unfolds, and unfolds, for nearly three hours) at Arena Stage is nothing if not dutiful—and ultimately, despite a charmer of a leading lady, it feels a little dull. It’s enough to make you wonder why Arena bothered producing the thing: Any decent dinner theater can do a straight-up South Pacific, but a major regional house ought to bring a fresh idea or two.
Kate Baldwin’s Ensign Nellie Forbush—that endearing Navy nurse who finds herself a long way from Little Rock and head-over-heels for a dashing French plantation owner—is a coltish joy, a fresh-faced, long-legged bright spot in a production that could use more of her brand of wattage. Baldwin is a neat contradiction: a relaxed, confident performer convincingly inhabiting a scattered, skittish character. She and Smith make Nellie so thoroughly winning that the character’s eventual crisis (over the planter’s mixed-race children) seems all the harder to bear—and so open-hearted that you never doubt she’ll come right eventually.
Some will inevitably complain about the thinness of Baldwin’s singing voice, but that probably has more to do with the chilly vastness of the Fichandler than with any vocal shortcoming; George Fulginiti-Shakar’s 13-piece orchestra sounds a little toy-band-ish, too—which makes you wonder why Arena insists on stashing the players under the stage floor and piping the music through speakers in the ceiling. (In an otherwise solidly designed show, Timothy M. Thompson’s garish sound design deserves special scorn for the jarring transitions between unmiked dialogue and overamplified songs—and for the way voices seem to be coming from somewhere far overhead rather than from the actors onstage.)
Those perennial Fichandler flaws wouldn’t be quite so annoying if it weren’t for the sheer lavishness of the music they’re letting down. “Some Enchanted Evening,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “Younger Than Springtime,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-A My Hair,” “Honey Bun,” “Bali Ha’i”—the songs tumble and yearn, one after the other, as bountiful as the mangoes and bananas the chorus of Seabees celebrates in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” If Rodgers & Hammerstein had never written another big musical, South Pacific would be legacy enough to make them legends, and a score this lush demands a sound as rich.
That’s nowhere truer than in the role of Emile de Becque, the expatriate planter whose murky past (he fled France having accidentally killed a man) bothers Nellie less than his previous marriage to a brown-skinned woman. It was opera star Ezio Pinza who starred in the original opposite Mary Martin, and it was for fear of losing her musical-comedy voice in the wash of his prodigious basso that R&H steered clear of the usual love duets. (Watch the audience lean in during “Some Enchanted Evening,” anxious for that explosive, exultant moment of harmony that most such scenes serve up; it never comes.) At Arena, Richard White displays all the suave continental charm the part requires, but something’s happened to the bravura baritone that made Beauty and the Beast’s lantern-jawed villain such stupid fun; whether White’s blown his voice out since his animated heyday or he was merely battling a cold last weekend, he was working awfully hard and wobbling awfully precariously at Saturday’s matinee.
Brad Anderson, third of the major players, is the picture of clean-cut decency as Lt. Cable, who has a cross-cultural romantic decision of his own to make—and who voices Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most direct anti-bias argument in the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (to hate, that is). Smith lets him deliver the lyric—”You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made/And people whose skin is a different shade”—all in a despairing rush, which will seem hurried to those who don’t find it an utterly convincing display of frustration and self-loathing.
The supporting cast and ensemble, per Arena’s practice with shows this size, are a mix of local stalwarts and New York imports. Among the former, Lawrence Redmond leaves no scenery unchewed as souvenir-hawking Seabee Luther Billis; of the latter, Lori Tan Chinn labors mightily to strip away decades of stereotype and condescension from the character of Luther’s Tonkinese opposite number, the scheming, haggling shrunken-head vendor Bloody Mary. That she’s only partly successful has something to do with the wheedling way she sings the lilting “Bali Ha’i” and the insufferably bouncy “Happy Talk”—two chances to get beneath a thinly drawn character’s skin, they seem here like just another pair of sales pitches—but in the end, Bloody Mary’s limitations are as much on the page as on the stage.
One last thought: Much has been made elsewhere of the strict ethnic distinctions Smith has drawn in her production—her islanders are all Asian of one flavor or another, while her military types are strictly lily-white. But the first choice is remarkable only because tradition too often casts white actors as the Polynesians and black ones in the role of Bloody Mary; Smith’s approach, surely, is the very least anyone ought to expect from a major regional production these days.
The next, however, is—if anything—dangerously simplistic in a show set during World War II, a conflict that proved the mettle of the Tuskegee Airmen and countless other African-American troops. Plenty of light-skinned soldiers and sailors worked alongside darker-hued compatriots and still found it hard to shake the bigotry they’d been so carefully taught—and that fact, surely, makes for a more complicated and compelling take on our national shame than the crossing of such a clearly drawn line ever could. CP