A pair of stellar lead performances are but two of a multitude of reasons not to miss the Welk Theatre’s thrillingly intimate mid-sized revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic South Pacific down Escondido way.

ATP_6708  Though often eclipsed by the first R&H collaboration, Oklahoma!, one that revolutionized American musical theater, and their last, The Sound Of Music, which has become the creative partners’ most popular work, South Pacific stands tall amongst the R&H oeuvre with its pair of timeless love stories, its hummable melodies and astute lyrics in one hit song after another, its richly exotic setting, dramatic, suspenseful WWII time frame, and delightful bits of comic relief, and perhaps most importantly, its ahead-of-its-time examination of the racial prejudices so deeply ingrained in mid-20th Century America.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s fourth Broadway musical (after Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Allegro) dares to open quietly, still almost unheard of at the time of its Broadway premiere in 1949. A pair of children living on a small island in the South Pacific early on in World War II sing the charming French language “Dites Moi.” Then comes the kind of extended dialog-and-song sequence that had already become a R&H trademark, with U.S. Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush (Hannah M. James) and expatriate French planter Emile de Becque (Randall Dodge) falling in love over “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Twin Soliloquies,” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” It’s only then, a good twenty minutes into South Pacific, that the show’s male chorus makes its first entrance, a bunch of lusty sailors singing the praises of “Bloody Mary” (and women in general) in “There Is Nothing Like A Dame.” Shortly after, the scene switches to the Island Commander’s Office for one of the play’s central plotlines, the Navy’s request that de Becque help them on a daring secret mission that could easily cost him his life.

ATP_6735 A gorgeously tropical set by Theatrical Productions is the first indication that the Welk revival will be a special one, and though a mere four musicians launching into the South Pacific “Overture” may seem few for a musical of South Pacific’s grandeur, in the 339-seat Welk, an instrumental quartet doesn’t seem all that out of place, nor does a scaled-down troupe of sailors and Navy nurses.

Once the final strains of an instrumental “Bali Hai” have been met by enthusiastic audience applause and the delightful “Dites Moi” duetted by a pair of Polynesian children, James and Dodge make their entrance, and if you are anything like this reviewer, you will soon find yourself putty in the hands of this perfectly cast, heavenly matched duo.

Director Joshua Carr deserves the first of multiple kudos in casting Nellie and Emile as a March-August romance rather than the customary May-December pairing, if only to make this 64-year-old musical more relevant and accessible to the younger audiences the Welk is working hard to attract. That the girl-next-door incandescent James and the leading-man charismatic Dodge are both terrifically gifted vocalists with first-rate acting chops to boot provides even more reasons to cheer their pairing, one which would not be out of place on a Broadway or National Tour stage. Also, it would be remiss of me not to salute James and Dodge on their versatility, she having previously impressed this reviewer with her night-and-day different Amber Van Tussle and Zaneeta Shinn and he with his Scenie-winning performance as Giuseppe Nacarelli and recent villainous turn as Judge Turpin.

A pair of supporting Welk performances deserve particular mention. Brenda Oen milks every Bloody Mary laugh, sings “Bali Hai” and “Happy Talk” to perfection, and fights for her daughter’s happiness like a South Seas tigress. As for Shaun Leslie Thomas, this former alligator wrestler is the first Luther Billis I’ve seen to merit the adjective fabulous for his scene-stealing turn in South Pacific’s second-most-colorful role, never more so than when dolled up in “Honey Bun” drag opposite an adorably sailor-suited James.

ATP_6928 Benjamin Lopez’s Lt. Cable has just the right tenor pipes to sing “Younger Than Springtime” with the best of them, but the handsome young leading man could dig deeper in Cable’s more emotional scenes, especially in expressing the Lieutenant’s frustration with his own inability to rid himself of the prejudice he sings about so powerfully in “You’ve Got To Be Taught.” (How courageous and ahead of their time Rodgers & Hammerstein were to attack racial bigotry at a time when interracial marriage was prohibited by racist anti-miscegenation laws in much of the United States.)

Joanna Tsang gives us a lovely, graceful Liat, while Michael Prohaska (previously a Scenie-winning Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) makes for a warm-hearted authority figure as Captain Brackett, ably assisted by Matthew Naegeli as Commander Harbison.

Sailors Lucas Coleman (Stewpot), Gene Hicks (Professor), Jake Hoff (Adams), Manuel Rodriguez (O’Brien), and E.Y. Washington (Quale), and nurses Amy M. McDowell, Megan Carmitchel, Lia Peros, and Sarah Errington make for a tiptop chorus, somewhat smaller in number than a bigger stage production would feature but no less talented.

Young Natalie Marrewa and Sophia Dimmick are petite charmers as Emile’s daughters Ngana and Janee. (That’s right, he’s got two little girls at the Welk.)

Though not a dancy show (no ballet sequences here as in Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King And I), South Pacific does feature the bouncy “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” and “Honey Bun,” and whether the term “musical staging” might be more appropriate for this particular musical than “choreography,” in either case Ray Limon’s work here is topnotch.

Musical director Justin Gray conducts (and plays keyboards in) the previously mentioned mini-orchestra, the foursome joining instrumental voices so well that one often forgets just how few musicians there are. (Mike Masessa plays drums and percussion, Catherine Gray violin, and Amy Kalal reeds.)

This South Pacific looks terrific, from the abovementioned sets (scene changes are refreshingly brief and smooth) to Jennifer Edwards’ vivid lighting design to Sherrie Diaz’s fine period costumes (provided by The Theatre Company, Upland) to Beverly George’s pitch-perfect props. Patrick Hoyny’s sound design is crisp and clear as well. Kudos too to producer/theater manager Carr, assistant theater manager Edwards, and to the production’s uncredited stage manager.

I do have a couple of nits to pick before concluding this review.

The recent Broadway revival added the word “colored” to the dramatic confrontation which ends Act One—and did so to devastating effect. Without that word (and the way it makes abundantly clear to contemporary audiences the ugly racism that can lurk behind an All-American Girl exterior), many younger theatergoers may leave for intermission clueless as to the reason for Nellie’s abrupt change of heart.

I must also quibble about the historically inaccurate depiction of a WWII African-American sailor in a musical specifically about racism in the pre-Civil Rights movement 1940s.

Notwithstanding, South Pacific at the Welk Theatre is a revival to cheer about. Making the very most of Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s glorious score and Hammerstein’s and Joshua Logan’s engrossing book, and spotlighting two of the most marvelous lead performances you’re likely to see in 2013, this is a South Pacific well worth a drive down to the Welk.

The Welk Theater, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr, Escondido.

–Steven Stanley
January 5, 2013
Photos: Sharyn Sakimoto

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