It’s been nearly 50 years since the last of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals debuted on Broadway, yet the team’s work remains as popular as ever. Carousel (1945) and The Sound Of Music (1959) continue to be CLO staples, as does The King And I (on Broadway in 1951, 1960, 1977, 1985, and 1996, and soon to open in Thousand Oaks). Last season Downey Civic Light Opera revived the team’s first joint effort, Oklahoma (1943), in an absolutely terrific production (and two more local CLO’s have Oklahoma scheduled over the coming year). And the current Broadway revival of R&H’s 1949 smash South Pacific recently won seven Tonys.

Angelinos unable to travel back to New York to catch the Lincoln Center production can still enjoy such Rodgers and Hammerstein hits as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Bali Hai,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “Younger Than Springtime” in Downey Civic Light Opera’s just opened revival, and while Downey’s South Pacific is not as successful as was their Oklahoma, there are many pleasures to be had from the production.

South Pacific, as musical theater aficionados will tell you, was R&H’s fourth Broadway show and third hit (the flop Allegro having snuck in after Oklahoma and Carousel) and was based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1948 book, Tales of the South Pacific.  The musical takes characters from several of its stories and weaves them together in a single plotline, central to which is the love story between middle-aged French planter Emile De Beque (who fled to a South Pacific island after killing the town bully) and Nellie Forbush, the “corny as Kansas in August” Navy nurse, away from Little Rock, Arkansas for the first time.  Though Nellie scarcely bats an eyelash when Emile confesses the killing to her, she breaks off their engagement upon learning that the Frenchman had been married to a Polynesian woman with whom he fathered his two small children.  Meanwhile, young Lieutenant Joe Cable falls in love with Liat, a Tonkinese maiden, but refuses to marry her, as much because of her race as because he already has a girl back home.  Providing comic relief are Liat’s entrepreneurial mother Bloody Mary (who sells grass skirts and shrunken heads, and speaks a mix of broken English and cuss words she’s learned from the sailors) and horny Seabee Luther Billis, who like Bloody Mary always seems to be working one angle or another.

When South Pacific opened in 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein were as controversial as today’s so-called “activist judges” for daring to write about racial prejudice and interracial marriages, then illegal in Arkansas and 29 other states.  Cable’s song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” is to this day a powerful statement on how racism (or just about any other –phobia) is learned, not inborn:  “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught.” The song remains one of South Pacific’s most impactful moments, though Nellie’s reason for breaking off her engagement to Emile may go right over the heads of today’s younger, more open-minded Downey audiences. (Interestingly, the current Broadway revival spells out Nellie’s unexpected racism in a way that the 1949 script (which Downey is using) does not, by going back to the original draft in which Nellie refers to Emile’s first wife as “colored,” a word which, one reviewer has stated, “hits the ear like a slap.”)

Downey CLO’s production is at its best when Emile and Nellie are center stage. Greg North has everything a first-rate Emile should have.  Not only is North a superb singer, he is also thoroughly convincing both in romantic and dramatic scenes, no more so than when attempting in vain to convince Nellie not to break off their engagement for such a (to him) trivial reason. Opposite North is the absolutely enchanting Carolanne Marano as Nellie.  Marano has the about as high an L.Q. (likeability quotient) as any actress around (think Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, Mary Tyler Moore circa 1970), and it’s hard to imagine a better acted or more completely believable Nellie. Director Marsha Moode once again deserves high marks for the performances she has guided, especially those of her two leads, who, by the way, have great chemistry together.

In supporting roles, Karl Schott gets laughs galore as Luther Billis, especially in the classic gender-switching “Honey Bun” opposite Marano’s sailor-suited Seabee; Downey stalwart Bill Lewis does excellent work in a non-musical role as Captain Brackett; as Joe Cable, tall, lanky Daniel Bernbach sings a lovely “My Girl Back Home;” Glenn Edward, Adam Trent, and Stephen Henry are a fine trio of Navy men; and Amber Quan makes a lovely Liat. The male ensemble’s voices blend to splendid effect in “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” and “Bloody Mary,” and sailors Spencer Moreno and Charlie Nash’s acrobatic moves provoke “oohs” and “aahs.”

Finally, there is the outrageously funny Ann Peck McBride, stealing every scene she’s in as Bloody Mary. That Downey’s Dolly Levi and Anna Leonowens could transform herself into the toothless Tonkinese Mary is nothing short of amazing. McBride’s is a Bloody Mary that others can be measured against, not only comedically but vocally as well. “Bali Hai” has never been better sung.

The South Pacific cast is completed by Hunter Berecochea, Heather Blades, Stephen Chavarria, Matt Claiborne-Karic, Jeffrey D. Collier, Devon Cornair, Alexandra Donovan, Felipe Echerri, Marina Ferriera, Rob Fox, Melissa Greilach, Greg Hernandez, Cru Jones, Michael Lopez, Nicole Manly, Carie Millard, Nicholas Miranda, Fiona Okida, Roy Okida, Christina Putrelo, and Cynthia Stults.

The production is not without its drawbacks. A few important roles are either not as well sung or acted as I would have wished for.  Gitana Van Buskirk’s choreography seems not at the level of recent Downey shows.  And South Pacific itself doesn’t hold up as well as other R&H hits, or at least that was my impression the one other time I saw it (in 1993) and again this time, perhaps as a result of the show’s focus being too diffused between numerous plots and subplots.  

What cannot be faulted are the ever-excellent musical director-conductor Eddy Clement and the Downey Civic Light Opera orchestra. The set design is lovely, with Downey Theatre’s convenient pair of side sets used more often than usual, allowing fast scene changes to Brackett’s office, Liat’s hut, and “backstage.” Even better is Kim Killingsworth’s lighting design, especially the beautiful sunset effects.  Ralph Amendola’s sound design provides an excellent mix of voices and musical accompaniment.

Though not the triumph that Oklahoma was a year ago, South Pacific still offers many charms and classic moments of musical theater.  In addition to the previously mentioned songs, there are also “Dites-Moi,” “Twin Soliloquies,” “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy,” and “This Nearly Was Mine.”  In these days when many Broadway shows are lucky to have even one or two memorable tunes, a show like South Pacific, in which every single song is part of our collective memory, is rare indeed.

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd. , Downey.

–Steven Stanley
October 3, 2008

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