When it comes to Marriott Theatre’s revival of “South Pacific,” the only thing more sumptuous than Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s glorious score is the lush set.
The tropical paradise designed by Thomas M. Ryan and dreamily lit by Diane Ferry Williams consists of exotic flowers and gently arching palm trees accented with camouflage. The latter serves as a reminder that these idyllic islands — home to naive Navy nurses, sex-starved Seabees and enigmatic expatriates — exist in the middle of a war zone and might not survive the conflict, at least not in their present state.
The same can be said of the dual romances that propel the 1949 musical — set against the backdrop of World War II — where emotional turmoil trumps international strife.
Indeed, “South Pacific” poses challenges, most having to do with its well-intentioned (in its bold call for racial tolerance) yet occasionally clunky book, adapted by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan from James A. Michener’s short story collection “Tales of the South Pacific.” But pricklier issues persist, chief among them the casual exploitation of indigenous people, whose artifacts — like its young women — become souvenirs for Westerners. Sixty-four years after its premiere and despite changing attitudes, it remains a thorn among “South Pacific’s” flora.
Director David H. Bell doesn’t necessarily clear out the nettles, but his revival moves swiftly and surely. And its conclusion — both the tearful reunion and the sober send-off — feels genuine. Typical of Marriott productions under music director Ryan T. Nelson, the show is exceptionally well-sung.
The fact is, “South Pacific’s” greatest strength is its score. And while I cannot reconcile the bouncy tune with the biting lyrics of “You Have to be Carefully Taught,” the continued resonance of such ballads as “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Some Enchanted Evening” cannot be denied. Factor in crowd-pleasing production numbers like “Honey Bun” and the irresistible celebration of sexual frustration that is “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” (both exuberantly choreographed by Matt Raftery), and it’s no wonder why it’s so beloved.
Of course, that affection has much to do with the central romance between the young Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (the winsome Elizabeth Lanza), and Emile de Becque (Naperville’s Stephen R. Buntrock), a middle-aged French expatriate whose biracial children force Nellie to confront her deep-seated prejudice.
The secondary plot involves Lt. Joe Cable (the effortlessly confident Ben Jacoby), a privileged young man from Philadelphia who is captivated by the teenage Liat (Emily Morales). Liat is the daughter of Bloody Mary (an edgy, unyielding turn by Bethany Thomas), the savvy Tonkinese entrepreneur who vies for the servicemen’s dollars. Her competition comes from the quick-thinking, fast-talking Luther Billis (the terrific Stef Tovar), the enterprising Seabee who is half in love with Nellie, and entirely devoted to profiting (literally) from his armed service.
The heavy lifting falls to the extremely able duo of Lanza and Buntrock. Not only does Buntrock possess a glorious baritone, but he brings to Emile an approachable sophistication and a kind of restrained ardor that suggests a man of a certain age eager to experience love one last time.
Lanza’s artlessness suggests a naive young woman whose prejudice derives from ignorance rather than hate. Her chirpy Nellie defines perky, to the extent that you wonder what she and the cultured, subdued Emile see in each other.
Then it hits you: it’s the combination of spunk and sobriety, naiveté and wisdom that makes them better together than they are apart.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.