Return to `South Pacific'

Review: Even flawed Rodgers and Hammerstein is easy on the eyes and ears.

March 26, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Glenn Close seems a little too tenured to be Nellie Forbush. Rade Sherbedgia doesn't radiate much sensual electricity as Emile de Becque. The passion you are supposed to feel when the two are in each other's company is mainly missing in action.

Then there's Harry Connick Jr., as Marine Lt. Joseph Cable. Let's just say he's a lot closer to the young Frank Sintra as a singer than as an actor. And let's not even talk about what they've done to some of the marvelous songs of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, dropping one altogether ("Happy Talk") and clipping several back nearly to overture length. And maybe it's me being too PC, but the depiction of Bloody Mary (Lori Tan Chinn) made me uncomfortable.

Given all of that, you might think I hated "Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific," airing tonight on ABC. But I had a delightful time watching it. I got caught up in the war story, was dazzled by several of the production numbers and felt that three hours flew by with me wanting more, more, more. How could this be?

The answer is in the power of great popular art to often generate some of its magic and energy even in less than ideally adapted or abbreviated forms. And no realm of popular art does it better than musical theater, where one song from a great score can be taken totally out of context, performed by a nightclub singer in Las Vegas and still cast a spell over a room. Robert Goulet made a career out of doing just that, didn't he?

Yes, Close is a little old at 52 to play Forbush, the cockeyed optimist from Little Rock. Mary Martin was 35 when she debuted as Forbush on Broadway, and Mitzi Gaynor was 28 when she did Joshua Logan's film version in 1958.

But Close is such a splendid musical performer that everything melts away when she opens her mouth until all that exists is the singer and the song and the truth of what is being said. Transcendence is too lofty a word for what happens at such moments on the TV screen tonight, but the experience is close enough. And there are so many great songs here for her to sing, from "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" to "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair."

The other appeal of this ABC version is the way it showcases the war-story aspect of "South Pacific," which was based on James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, "Tales of the South Pacific." The men-and-women-at-war aspect of "South Pacific" isn't as powerful as "Saving Private Ryan," for example, but it's similar. The story of Cable and de Becque on a Japanese-held island kicks the final third of the film into narrative overdrive.

In its telling of that story, the production captures the spirit of a generation at war, as well as the incredible optimism of American culture at the time the play was staged in 1949. Reconnecting with our national past in that way can provide its own kind of great pleasure - especially in these post-post-modern times when so much of our popular culture seems like a shopworn hand-me-down from earlier generations.

Is there some vanity involved in Close, the executive producer, believing Close, the actress, could still be Nellie and maybe casting de Becque with an actor who was not a threat? Let me put it this way: Is she an actress?

Close is a great actress. And, while her production of "South Pacific" is not a great film, by the standards of most made-for-TV movies, it makes for one enchanted evening of viewing.

`South Pacific'

When: Tonight at 8

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: Flawed in major ways, but still some enchanted moments.

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