`Pacific' is enchanting but not revealing

Review: Despite the timeliness of its topic, the touring production offers few new insights.

February 15, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Like the stunningly beautiful part of the world where it takes place, the musical South Pacific has one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most luxurious scores. It also has one of their most hard-hitting themes - racial prejudice.

With the exception of some second-act trims, the touring production at the Mechanic Theatre reverently re-creates the elements that make this show great. Still, one can't help wishing it were more than just an "Enchanted Evening."

Director Scott Faris' interpretation is a decent introduction for newcomers, but while it reminds you of what a strong musical this is, it doesn't bring out any new insights, and that's especially a shame considering the timeliness of the show's message of racial tolerance in wartime.

Adapted from James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific by librettists Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is set in French Polynesia during World War II.

The plot focuses on two romances fraught with racial tensions - nurse Nellie Forbush's love for French planter Emile de Becque, who has two mixed-race children and Lt. Joseph Cable's love for a young Tonkinese woman named Liat.

Nellie and Emile are the predominant couple (in part because Liat speaks no English and only a little French), and Erin Dilly and Michael Nouri make their characters' mutual affection apparent from the start.

Not only does Dilly have a lovely, clear voice with excellent control, but she also brings just the right amount of physical comedy to the role, becoming weak in the knees when Emile's embrace leaves her in a "conventional dither" and turning an exuberant cartwheel at the conclusion of this paean to "A Wonderful Guy."

Augmenting his deep, rich voice with a French accent, debonair Nouri imbues Emile with the pheromones of a matinee idol. Faris has given him some unfortunate direction, however. Most of "Some Enchanted Evening" is sung to Dilly's back, and the actor's front-and-center delivery of the bittersweet "This Nearly Was Mine" is static instead of dramatic.

This staging isn't the only thing that lessens the weight of the show. As Cable, Lewis Cleale sings adequately, but comes across as too wet-behind-the-ears and bookish for a romantic figure. Similarly, James Judy and John Wilkerson's portrayals of the officers in charge of the base are closer to comic caricatures than authority figures.

Gretha Boston and David Warshofsky, however, achieve a nice balance between comedy and compassion as the show's two wheeler-dealers, Tonkinese Bloody Mary and Seabee Luther Billis.

Gary Chryst's choreography is at its best when it's playful - for example, when the Seabees break into calisthenic moves in "There is Nothing Like a Dame," or when Nellie's fellow nurses use mosquito netting to drape her in a makeshift wedding gown and veil at the end of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair."

Derek McLane's tropical set readily conveys island splendor, although Ken Billington's lighting occasionally lapses into sentimentality.

The production is undergoing some cast changes, the most visible of which will be next month's replacement of Nouri with Robert Goulet, returning to the role he played in a tour that came to the Lyric Opera House in 1988. Dilly's contract also expires next month. Not only will it be a shame to lose two of the production's finest assets, but cast changes alone may also not be enough to enhance the show's artistic heft.

One area that could benefit from further attention is evident in the curtain call. On opening night, Nouri came out for his bow in a T-shirt bearing an American flag and the slogan, "NYFD 9.11."

It seemed a touch heavy-handed, but that feeling abated when the actor explained that the production has raised more than $360,000 for Sept. 11 charities (the post-performance collections have been discontinued). He then led the audience in a heartfelt "God Bless America."

By that point, the connection between the musical's themes and current events was inescapable, but how much more powerful the evening might be if, instead of a post-show commentary, such connections stemmed from a fresh interpretation of this classic musical.

South Pacific

Where Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When 8 p.m. tonight, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. tomorrow, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets $22.50-$70

Call 410-752-1200

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